When I saw that Annabel was hosting a week long celebration of the work of Iain Banks, called BanksRead, I was very keen to join in. Iain Banks was one of my Dads’ favourite writers and his suggestion that I try The Wasp Factory when I was sixteen, has probably had quite the influence on my reading preferences ever since. I’ve inherited quite a few of Banks’ novels from my late Dad’s collection and have read The Crow Road, Complicity, The Business, and most recently Espedair Street.
Yesterday I revisited Banks’ final interview, given to Stuart Kelly of the Guardian, just a month before his untimely death, and I was interested to see that he named Canal Dreams as his worst novel! If that’s the case then I can only imagine that The Bridge (which he named as his best) is a masterpiece as I enjoyed Canal Dreams very much.
Canal Dreams is not one of Banks’ sci-fi novels, but thanks to its spare, almost hallucinatory style, it sometimes feels that way. It is 1989 and Hisako Onado – a world-renowned Japanese cellist – has a debilitating fear of flying which has forced her to travel by sea on a tanker, for a planned European tour.
Due to the United States invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause), the tanker gets caught in the Panama Canal and due to the ongoing unrest, the ship is forced to drop anchor in Gatun Lake.
The novel is split into three sections, and in the first, Hisako and her crew mates are making the best of what is, at the moment, an irritating situation. Hisako has started a relationship with Phillipe, a young French engineer on a neighboring boat, and the two spend their time diving in the lake, and going into Panama for shopping and dinner trips. As Hisako’s agent frantically calls from Japan, desperately trying to reschedule her tour, Hisako passes through this unexpected hiatus with little thought to what the consequences might be. With so much time on her hands, she muses on her childhood in Japan – her widowed mother’s sacrifices which have allowed her to play the cello, her growing fame and her lost loves – and realises that her decision not to fly because of a fear of death, is the decision that has led her directly into a war zone.
Everything changes when a guerilla faction take the ship and it’s passengers hostage. As the chance of being rescued recedes and the slaughter of the crew begins, Hisako finds herself in the middle of a nightmare where she must use everything at her disposal to fight for her very survival.
Hope was endemic, and sometimes reality implied despair.
Tonally, Canal Dreams is a strange book, which at times reads like a surreal fable, pitting artistic sensibilities against brute political force. Hisako’s change from dreamy, detached musician to Rambo-esque fighter could be disastrous in another author’s hands, but through flashbacks, Banks has made it clear that Hisako is a woman who is well used to looking after herself and that this isn’t her first brush with violence. The fear of flying, which has dictated her whole life, was a fear of some unknown terror, but when faced with real-life terror, Hisako finds hidden reserves of bravery and courage.
Now she couldn’t be who or what she had been. She hadn’t asked for this, hadn’t wanted it, but it was here. Not her fault. There was no forbearance, no vengeance, just chance. But it had happened all the same, and she did not feel she simply had to succumb; acceptance was not nearly enough and far too much.
Throughout the novel, Banks returns to the theme of submersion, be it in music, water or dreams. As Hisako fights back against the terrorists, one feels like she is breaking the surface of her life and finally – when her very existence depends on it – fighting for what she wants, rather than what is expected of her.
The novel does suffer a little though from its reliance on Hisako, all other characters are slight and uninteresting, meaning their fate feels as if it is of little consequence but it is expertly structured, building tension as the reader, like Hisako, realises that things are not going to turn out well.
However, despite the tight plot and fast action, this is more of a mood piece, creating a fascinating sense of apocalyptic gloom which pervades through to the book’s surreal and satisfying ending.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 325
NUMBER REMAINING: 421
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!