The Wasp Factory

The Wasp FactoryTitle: The Wasp Factory
Author: Iain Banks
Publication date: 1984

What’s it about?The Wasp Factory

Teenager Frank Cauldhame (who, by the age of ten, had killed three other children) lives on a remote Scottish island with his father, and indulges in a wide range of violent games. The book follows his story as he waits for news of his brother Eric, who has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and is making his way back home. But who will be the most shocked at what they find when Eric arrives?

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was already on my bookshelves. According to the inscription in the front, it was a present for my 25th birthday – and I’d never read it.

What did I learn from it?

I learned about the power of storytelling, specifically how an audience is gripped by mysteries, and is driven to keep turning the pages to find out ‘what happened?’, no matter how disturbing the journey. Two chapters are, in fact, entitled ‘What Happened to Eric’ and ‘What Happened to Me’, and they occur near the very end of the novel. We are made aware as the story progresses that unspeakable things happened to both boys, and yet the facts unfold very gradually. The exact truth about Frank only becomes apparent in the last four pages, and once it is revealed, we (along with Frank himself) must question what we thought we had known all along.

I also realised I’m a lot more squeamish than I thought – or maybe it’s simply that Banks is skilled in conjuring up visual images that stick in the mind, that won’t let go and can’t be unread, no matter how much you try to forget them. There were scenes in this novel (one in particular) that I found more gruesome than anything I’ve ever read or watched before – and yet I kept turning those pages. That’s writing talent at work.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Despite Frank’s psychotic tendencies and the absence of the usual confines of schooling, the description of his life on the island brought back many memories of an ’80s childhood spent playing outside. Where Frank wanders his territory setting bombs, hunting rabbits, collecting live wasps for sacrifice, hoisting animal skulls on poles, and building dams (and blowing them up), I would climb trees, make dens, and – yes – visit the local dump, inventing stories that I would play out with my friends.

This was the era before computer games took hold. Although I do recall titles such as Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, I was never really a computer girl; when I wasn’t reading books, I was outside making up stories for myself and acting them out. True, my adventures would feature secret societies and tracking in the woods rather than explosives and animal torture, but I can still relate to how Frank spends his time: the sheer joy of being out in the open air, exploring the fruits of his imagination.

The book reminded me of how much fun I had in my childhood, and how much of that was, surprisingly for me, spent outside. I’m writing this in a week where, for various reasons, I’ve not been on my usual morning walks, and I’ve realised that this has made me quite twitchy. We don’t always appreciate the great outdoors until we can’t access it any more, and while it’s easy to hunker down cosily inside (especially in the dark winter months), I’ve realised I still need to make time for fresh air – and to see how it sparks my creative mind.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Prompted by my musings above, I’ll renew my efforts to get out into the countryside. In fact, I’ll do more than take up my morning walks again; in the New Year I’m going to try out a local walking group, and see if I can get into the habit of going for a proper hike on Sundays. There’s one I’ve found that seems to offer a variety of routes at different levels of difficulty, so I’ll use the Christmas holiday to gather together all my walking equipment (I need some new boots, for a start), and will contact them in January with a view to setting a new habit!

I’m also going to take yet another prompt to crack on with my own creative writing; and inspired by Banks’s storytelling, I’ve decided to set myself a challenge for 2017. In a similar way to how I approach the Book Diaries, I’m going to set myself the target of writing one piece of fiction each month. This could be anything from a short story to a chapter in my novel; or even something completely different – the aim is to give myself a deadline, so that I actually achieve something rather than just sit and think about it.

If I can get walking and writing again – two things I loved to do when I was younger, but which I’ve let slide over the years – I will be a very happy bunny.

A musical interlude

Dogs feature quite heavily (and not in a good way) in The Wasp Factory, and so they’ve inspired this week’s music track.