Spoiler city: you have been warned.
Banks has pretty much got it all: he can do full-tilt action; he can create authentic characters a mile from stereotype; he can incorporate intelligent themes; he can shock; he can amuse; he can work to a clever structure. Oh, and he can write: his style is enviable. The question (with rare exceptions) isn't whether he can do it, it's what is he going to do.
I wonder if this book was a response to all the stupid thrillers out there. Banks saying, sure, you can have the fun of a wronged lone figure taking brutal vengeance on some vile baddies, but you don't have to endure cardboard stereotypes and utterly predictable scenarios. Here he demonstrates this - and how.
For the first third of the book (even more given the constant flashbacks that often dominate the narration) you feel like you’re in a slow moving bit of a chick novel (‘not that there’s anything wrong with that’). I don’t know, something like Anne Tyler or Penelope Lively, where the focus is far more on character than action. Hisako is still one of Iain Banks’ characters, and he doesn’t tend to bother with everyman types, so she is a world famous cellist. But the stellar career is more a backdrop for piece by piece revelations about her life. Panama itself, we think, is also essentially a background: the political events of interest primarily in the way that they give Hisako an unexpected oasis of time (in an exotic location and with a new love interest) to pause and meditate. We learn a lot about Hisako. She’s neither idealised nor demonised. Admittedly the other characters are fairly sketchy, and the relationships pretty shallow, but in one way that suits Hisako’s perspective: she is fairly detached and introspective/selfish. She’s just getting through her life with a mix of being active and passive. Like I said, a bit of a chick thing – ably done.
But then, in as much time as it would take ‘real’ people’s normal lives to be shattered by war, we find ourselves in an action novel. But the catch is we know the players a bit too well to ‘enjoy’ it. The baddies are no worse or better than the usual, but far more chilling and nauseating because this doesn’t feel like a pantomime (cf. Tom Clancy). Banks’ books have some recurring ideas: one is the interaction between wealthy and impoverished cultures; another is warfare atrocities. I wasn’t really expecting the latter to pop up again in this book. Thematically it is powerful, and perhaps redressing another misconception resulting from ubiquitous airport thrillers: in giving us wafer thin nasties to defeat, somehow evil people aren’t quite real. In uniting a developed character with the sort of appalling abuse common in conflict, Banks makes it far more uncomfortable for the reader to keep the fiction at arm’s length.
What about the ‘Die-Hard’ last few chapters? Does he get away with that? If he was writing this purely as an action sequence, sure. But does it undermine all the authenticity of the previous characterisation and setting? It is absurd for this cellist to become Schwarzenegger, much as it’s gratifying for the reader to have her mete out some justice. Although he has gone to the trouble of giving her a plausible martial arts background and level of physical fitness (I don't quite know when she became so familiar with firearms though).. I suppose it is a dream, but a sight more powerful one than a stack of other thrillers. Also, perhaps, a dream of Banks to unite a meditative novel with an action movie.
But I suspect I enjoyed this book more in hindsight than in the reading. I like the idea subverting the wildly common thriller format by centring it around the sort of carefully developed nuanced character you expect in a ‘realistic’ novel. Similarly I acknowledge the cleverness and self-control of his ‘Inversions’, but, to brashly quote my own review of that book: “…I wonder if some of the pleasures for the reader have been sacrificed to Banks’ ingenious if perhaps less satisfying structure…” The idea is nice, but is there a good reason these two genres are generally kept separate?
As a novel, Hisako’s pre-Bruce Willis story is intellectually interesting but rarely engaging: we have a summaries of events rather than strong evocation (with some exceptions). There is a dreamlike quality to a lot of her story (as well as bona-fide dreams), and we might be surprised but are not really touched by her interactions. Few of us could empathise with her prodigy life, but the way it’s told neither is there (consciously) the (hackneyed but evergreen) pleasure of a rags to riches climb.
As a thriller, well, Banks probably lost Forsyth and Follett readers before the action even starts. Even a card-carrying fan like myself found the constant time shifting irritating and forced after a while - but once Banks has decided on a structure, he won't budge. This is probably a strength and a weakness. On the one hand he undermines the thriller style with the realistic blithe massacre: in this situation people - even young Americans! - are powerless. But then he throws that realism out the window with Hisako's Hollywood vengeance.
So I don't think he's pulled off a satisfying thriller with bonus authentic characters, despite Hisako's authenticity and a tight, brutal conclusion that is as well done as any action scenes I've read. I respect the idea, I acknowledge his success in realising it, but I admire this book more than I enjoyed it.
As such, I find it very hard to rate, but since this is a personal book log, I'm going to go with how much pleasure it gave me even if I do then come across as a bit of a philistine.