The Crow Road is a novel by Scottish author, Iain Banks1 (1954–2013). Published in 1992, it is one of the most popular of Banks's books. It was adapted into a television series by the BBC in 1996. It tells the story of two generations of the McHoan family, living in a small Scottish town by the sea.
It is a dark, humorous tribute to failed authors and to atheists, an account of growing up in Scotland and a mystery story - what happened to Uncle Rory?
The book is presented as a coming-of-age story2 of teenager Prentice McHoan, but most of the plot concerns the older generation of McHoans - three brothers and a sister. Prentice tries to piece together what happened in the past that made the family the way it is.
The main characters are:
Rory McHoan - travels the world as a young man, then writes a book about it when he gets back to Scotland. The book is immensely successful, and Rory spends the rest of his life trying to write another success - he is constantly working on a new book, which he has decided to call The Crow Road, but never really gets it started, not to mention finished. Rory then disappears - perhaps he has gone off to travel the world again, or perhaps something has happened to him. He hasn't been seen for eight years.
Kenneth McHoan is Rory's big brother. He is an outspoken atheist of the Richard Dawkins variety, who goes out of his way to criticise people who don't agree with his atheist principles. He is a school teacher. He claims to have evidence that Rory is still alive, although he doesn't reveal what it is.
Fergus Urvill is the richest man in the town, owning the glass factory where most people work. He fancies himself as a Scottish Laird - he wears tweed, drives a Bentley and has bought an old castle which he has restored. Fergus married Fiona, the sister of Rory and Kenneth, and they had two daughters, but Fiona was killed in a car crash many years before the time the story is being written down.
Prentice is the son of Kenneth - he is the narrator of the story. He has fallen out with his father on the subject of atheism and will not speak to him. He is studying at University in Glasgow. He suffers in his love life as he is infatuated with the beautiful Verity, a niece of his uncle-by-marriage Fergus, but she hardly knows he exists. Prentice is intrigued by the disappearance of his Uncle Rory and tries to piece together the story of Rory's life, receiving many conflicting clues from his relatives.
Ash (short for Ashley) Watt is a young woman who is a friend of Prentice. She is the sane voice who keeps Prentice in check when he gets extreme - whether it is extremely drunk or in his mad flights of fancy when he starts suspecting his relatives of being murderers.
There are other characters encountered along the way, each usually with a good story attached:
Hamish, the brother of Kenneth and Rory, is generally considered crazy but harmless. He has invented his own religion based on praying for the punishment of sinners.
Lachlann Watt, brother of Ash, has a glass eye after having somehow lost one of his real ones in an accident involving glass.
Mary McHoan, Prentice's mother and Kenneth's wife, doesn't do a lot in the book, but there's a good story attached to how she met Kenneth.
Margot McHoan, the matriarch of the family, mother of Kenneth, Rory, Hamish and Fiona, provides the dramatic opening line of the book:
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
The title 'The Crow Road' is an old Scottish phrase signifying death, as in 'he's away the Crow Road' meaning 'he has died'. Crow Road was also the street where Rory lived with his girlfriend Janice, inspiring the title of his unfinished second novel.
The story is long and rambling, jumping from present day description of Prentice and his conversations to accounts of the older generation from their childhood right up to the present day. The reader is left wondering exactly what is going on. Gradually a picture of life in Scotland emerges, stretched over many decades, and the story is pieced together as Prentice discovers what happened to Uncle Rory.
Unusually, the book is only mildly gruesome. Banks likes to spice up most of his novels with gratuitous violence and stomach-churning, macabre gore. Sometimes these are darkly humorous but often they merely illustrate how far removed some of the characters are from the normal standards of human decency.
The Crow Road has its dark moments, but they are either humorous (for example, the explosion of the grandmother) or the details are left to the imagination of the reader (for example the loss of Lachlann's eye).