A Song of Stone by Iain Banks, Abacus, $170 It could be Bosnia, or any other European country, which might still boast castles and windmills in the latter half of the 20th century.
It is the end of some beastly local war. Columns of refugees, people who stayed put during the main hostilities, are trying to escape the banditry of gangs of armed thugs and former soldiers now roaming the countryside.
Abel, a minor aristocrat, and the woman he loves are found among the refugees, taken hostage and brought back by force to the castle they fled.
Despite themselves they are glad to be back. The castle is a symbol of permanence, the message of its ancient stones the theme of Iain Banks' latest title, now out in paperback. There are violence and cruelty, certainly. But is this the same Banks who wrote the sadistic prose of The Wasp Factory ? The opening chapters might lead you to think otherwise. There is a quiet self-confidence. That, in itself, is slightly disturbing under the circumstances; but the sense of foreboding and the feeling that the captive's lone campaign of grudging co-operation will lead to trouble later are barely more than troubling at this stage.
The mood is deceptive. As the tale reaches its climax, the mildly disturbing becomes increasingly shocking and the merely cold-blooded begins to reveal flashes of the pathological. Abel's captor has robbed him not merely of his liberty, but of his home and its solidity, his lover, his dignity and self-esteem and ultimately his reason for survival.
The transition is perfectly handled. Along the way this seemingly ordinary couple have become extraordinary missionaries of immoralism.
Without the calm beginning, and almost surprising tenderness of their personal relationship, there would have been little by way of dignity to destroy. Without it, the orgy of demolition unleashed upon the castle might have seemed almost comic. Instead, Abel's reaction, which is to force himself to accept this vandalism as a kind of moral quid pro quo for his own social iconoclasm, gives him a stature he might not otherwise deserve.
Yet despite that and the ghastly, senseless cruelty of what follows, Abel does not quite cut it as a tragic figure. There has been too much humiliation. He is too much a victim, too passive a participant and too lacking in passion or self-knowledge to be satisfactory as a hero.
That is not a criticism in itself. One would expect nothing different from an author of Banks' world view. The tale and its telling are satisfying as a work of high-quality fiction, however unedifying the tale.
Given the couple's history it would have been strange if the mercifully few moments of explicit sex had not included at least one scene hinting at the emotional cruelty and implicit violence of their relationship.
Yet one scene in particular, erotic, coyly worded, but also jarringly coarse, further reduces both of them beyond the needs of the novel.
In odd contrast to this lapse, Banks has tried too hard to uplift an essentially sordid tale with a poetic style. He attempts to distil his thoughts to the essentials, leaving what he at one point describes as 'the prose reduced, promoted to a random poesy'.
There is nothing random about it. It is carefully crafted. But here and there the poesy is too high-flown and, sometimes, impenetrable.
In the end, though, it is not these minor flaws, but the human weaknesses of the protagonists and the injustice of the world they inhabit which leave the reader feeling bruised and faintly disappointed at the end of an otherwise excellent, gripping, and occasionally even witty, read.