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"With its deadpan teen narrator and stern rural backdrop, it is hard not to find in The Quarry a trace of Banks's enduring debut novel The Wasp Factory and with it the closing of a literary circle... The Quarry is a fitting valediction."—TLS, review
"Banks was an extraordinary writer; in straight literary fiction and in his science fiction novels, he engaged the world with passion... For good reason, Banks's many fans will devour this book."—Library Journal
Verdict Banks was an extraordinary writer; in straight literary fiction and in his fantasy novels, he engaged the world with passion. We’ll miss him. For good reason, Banks’s many fans will devour this book, which the author wrote after he was diagnosed this past March.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Most people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.
This is probably because I've had to think about who I am and who I'm not, which is something your average person generally doesn't have to do. Your average person has a pair of parents, or at least a mother, or at least knows roughly where they fit into all that family business in a way that I, for better or worse, don't. Usually I think it's for the better, though sometimes not.
Also, it helps that I am very clever, if challenged in other ways. Challenged in this context means that I am weird, strange, odd, socially disabled, forever looking at things from an unusual angle, or however you want to put it.
Most things, I've come to understand, fit into some sort of spectrum. The descriptions of myself fit into a spectrum that stretches from 'highly gifted' at one end to 'nutter' at the other, both of which I am comfortable with. One comes from understanding and respect, while the other comes from ignorance and fear. Mrs Willoughby explained the thinking behind both terms. Well, she explained the thinking behind the latter term, the offensive, deliberately hurtful term; the thinking behind the former, respectful judgement seemed perfectly clear and valid to me. (She got that wincing expression on her face when I mentioned this, but didn't say anything. Hol was more direct.)
'But I am clever.'
'I know. It's not the being clever that's the problem, Kit. It's the telling people.'
'So I ought to lie?'
'You ought to be less ... determined to tell people how clever you are. How much more clever you are than they are.'
'Even if it's true?'
'Plus, you're missing something.'
I felt myself rock back in my seat. 'Really?'
'Yes. There are different types of cleverness.'
'Hmm,' I said, which is what I've learned to say rather than the things I used to say, like, No there aren't, or, Are you sure? – in what was, apparently, a sarcastic tone.
'If nothing else,' Hol said, 'other people think that there are different types of cleverness, and that's what matters, in this context.'
One of the ways I am clever is that I can pay very close attention to exactly what people say and how they phrase things. With Hol this works especially well because she is quite clever too, and expresses herself well, and mostly in proper sentences (Holly is a journalist, so perhaps the habits of her trade have had an effect). Also, we have known each other a long time. With other people it can be harder. Even Guy – whom I've known even longer, because he's my dad, after all – can be a bit opaque sometimes. Especially now, of course, as he's dying. They don't think there is a tumour in his head affecting his mind, but he is on a lot of mind-muddling medication.
So, to return to Hol's last phrase, 'in this context': there was an almost audible clunk as she added these words to the end of the sentence. She put those words in there because she knows that I like them, that they make a difference to me. Both Hol and Mrs Willoughby have explained to me – sometimes at great length – that context matters a lot in various situations, and especially in social interactions, which is the stuff I tend to have difficulties with. Adding 'in this context' means she – Hol – wanted me to think about what she'd just said rather than just dismiss it out of hand because it seemed to me at the time that there was, plainly, only one sort of cleverness.
Anyway, other people 'thinking' that there are different types of cleverness was, apparently, what I was supposed to focus on.
'Are you sure, Hol?' I asked, patiently.
'There you go.'
'There I go what?'
'There you go, sounding sarcastic and patronising.'
'But I wasn't being either. I was trying to sound patient.'
'Again, what you meant isn't what matters, Kit. What matters is how you appear, what other people think you meant.'
'It's not my problem if ...' I began, then fell silent under a look from Hol. The look concerned involves her dipping her head a little to the right and her eyebrows rising while her lips purse a fraction. It was her look that says, as near as I can gauge it, 'Now, Kit, we've been over this before.'
'It is your problem,' she told me. 'If you've given people the wrong impression when you could have given them the right one, you've—'
'Yes yes yes, I need to make allowances for people,' I said, wanting to get back to the proper point. I may have waved my hands, too. 'So, what other sorts of cleverness are there?'
Hol sighed. 'Emotional cleverness, Kit. Empathising with others, getting on with people, intuiting what and how they think.'
'But if people would just say what they—'
I got the look again.
Now it was my turn to sigh. 'That's another area where I have to make allowances, isn't it?'
'Yes, it is. Plus, people don't always know what they think themselves, Kit,' Hol told me (and, in another turnaround, now she was sounding what you might call conspicuously patient). 'Not precisely, not so they can tell you clearly and unambiguously and without contradictions.' She paused, probably waiting for me to protest that, well, people just should know what they think, and express it properly (it was certainly what I was thinking). But I didn't say it. 'And a lot of the time,' she continued – when I just sat there and smiled the way she'd taught me – 'even when people do know what they think and why, they don't always want to tell you.' Another pause. 'Sometimes because they don't want to hurt your feelings, or give you something you might use against them later, either directly against them, to their face, or use against them by mentioning what's just been said to somebody else.'
'Often, yes,' Hol agreed, and smiled. Hol has a plain face but the consensus seems to be that it lights up when she smiles. I like to see her smile, and especially I like to see her smile at me, so I suppose this must be true. Hol has always been my favourite of Dad's old friends (not that he really has any new ones). Even before we came to our financial arrangement, I knew that I trusted her and I would listen to her and take her seriously. 'Sometimes,' she went on, 'they're ashamed of what they're thinking, or just need more time to decide what they really, truly feel, because emotions can get very ... well, tangled.'
'So,' I said, 'what you're saying is, it's complicated.' (This is almost a joke between us. A lot of apparently simple things seem to end up being 'complicated'.)
Hol nodded. 'People are. Who'd 'a thunk?'
I thought about this. 'Well, everybody, obviously.'
Holly nodded. 'Well, everybody else, Kit.'
'So I ought to hide my light under a bushel?'
'Oh, Jeez, Kit, you haven't been reading the Bible again, have you?'
'Is that where that's from?'
'Yes. I mean, I think so.'
'No. But should I? Hide my light under a bushel, I mean?'
'Well, just don't insist on putting it under a magnifying glass.'
We were in the sitting room of the house, sitting on overstuffed but threadbare couches on either side of the large, interestingly warped coffee table. A large vase of black glass containing real flowers sat between us. Usually we keep artificial flowers in this vase because real ones are such a bother and the only reason the vase is there anyway is to catch drips falling from the water-stained ceiling directly above. Holly had put the real flowers there. They were yellow; daffodils. This was spring, as in last spring, four Holly visits ago, when Guy seemed to be on the mend, or at least when the cancer was in remission.
I sat back in the seat and nodded in what I hoped was a decisive manner. 'I understand.'
Hol frowned. 'Hmm,' she said. 'Hu-fucking-rah.' (She is, unfortunately, somewhat prone to swearing, so arguably not that clever after all.)
Holly is wrong. I do understand emotions. When I see her shape in the frosted glass of the inner door of the porch, framed against the grey light by the storm doors bracketing her, I recognise her and feel a surge of good emotion. I run down the stairs to the door before Mrs Gunn can get there from the kitchen at the back of the house. I want to be the first person to greet Hol.
Mrs Gunn says that I 'thunder' when I run down the stairs. I don't care. I jump down the last two steps, landing as lightly as I can – which is surprisingly lightly, I think – then take the last two and a half paces to the front door at a calm walk because I don't want to appear too overenthusiastic. I can be a bit full-on, I've been told. (I've always thought this is really a good thing and people are just embarrassed and jealous that they're not as forthright as I am, but both Mrs Willoughby and Hol have explained ... Well, I'm not sure I could be bothered to listen on either occasion, but it was definitely one of those complicated areas where I have to pull back a bit and restrain myself.)
I open the door. 'Holly!'
'Hi, Kit,' she says, and comes forward and hugs me, kissing me on both sides of the face. She rises on tiptoes to do this, and properly applies lip pressure to my cheeks, a couple of centimetres forward from each of my ears. There is no moisture transferred (thankfully, even if it is Hol), but it is more than the usual mwah-mwah that I know, through Hol, media people exchange, when there may be no physical contact between heads at all, just cheeks put briefly in proximity.
Hol's hair looks the same so I don't have to remember to compliment her on this, and she appears similar otherwise, which is good. She is dressed in blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a green fleece. It is mostly thanks to Hol – and a little due to Mrs Willoughby – that I know to look for these things and consider commenting on them, to keep people happy.
'How are you, love?' she asks me.
I like the way Hol says 'love'. She was brought up near Bolton but her accent is sort of placeless; if you were forced to, you might say she sounded vaguely like a Londoner – or at least somebody from the Home Counties – with a hint of American. Dad says she completely lost what he calls her 'Ay-oop' accent within the first year of uni, remaking herself to sound less provincial, less identifiable, more neutral and bland. But she still says 'love' like a northerner, with the vowel sound like the one in 'low', not the one in 'above'. I realise I am thinking about this rather than actually replying to her question when I notice that there's an ongoing silence and Hol is looking at me with both eyebrows raised.
'Oh,' I say. 'Generally pretty well, thanks.'
'Huh,' Mrs Gunn says, appearing silently, suddenly at my side. Mrs Gunn is small, wiry, seemingly always bent over – forwards – and wears what we're all pretty sure is a tightly curled auburn wig. 'It's you,' she says to Hol. She turns away again, heading back down the dark hall, drying her hands violently on a dishcloth. 'I suppose you'd better come in,' she says as she goes.
Apparently Mrs Gunn is not the world's most welcoming person.
'Nice to see you too, Mrs G,' Hol says quietly to our housekeeper's retreating back. She pushes a small rucksack into my arms.
'Oh,' I say, startled, looking at it. 'I haven't got you anything.'
Hol sighs, takes the rucksack back. 'Never mind. I'll take this; you can get my case from the car. Heavier anyway.'
She stands aside and I go out to the car – the same old Polo – and take her case from the hatch. The car is red – the paint is faded on the short bonnet, which I've noticed tends to happen with red cars – and its rear is grey with motorway grime, making the hatch release feel gritty. I wipe my hand on my trousers but I'll need to wash it again as soon as I can. Or I could just stand here with my arm outstretched and my hand flat like I was looking for a tip from God; it is, as usual, raining.
'How's Guy?' Hol asks as we go up the stairs to her old room.
'Oh, still dying,' I tell her.
'Jeez, Kit,' she mutters, and I see her looking along the dark corridor towards his room.
I open the door for her and bring her case in as she stands there, looking across the rucked carpet and the sagging bed to the window with the faded curtains and the view over the densely treed back garden. The trees are only now coming into bud, so you can see the quarry between the network of restlessly moving twigs and branches; a grey depth opening into the rainy distance.
'Was I being insensitive?' I ask her.
'He might have heard you,' she tells me, not looking at me, still staring out of the window.
'He's probably asleep.' I leave a space. 'And anyway, he knows he's dying.' Holly is still looking away from me, but I see her head shake slightly. 'Anything else I've missed?' I ask her. 'So far?'
She turns to me. She wears a faint smile. 'You might have asked me how I am, how my journey was, Kit.'
'I'm fine. The drive was mostly shit; it usually is, especially on a bank holiday. But never mind. I'm here now.' She puts the rucksack down. Her glance flicks to the half-open door behind me. 'How are you doing, Kit, really?' she asks. She has lowered the volume of her voice.
I am about to repeat that I am generally pretty well, thanks, when I realise that the glance to the door and the lowered voice mean that she is thinking of Guy, and – I'm guessing – how I might be feeling about the fact that my father is going to die soon. I've got quite good at thinking about this sort of stuff, and quick at it, so I leave a little extra time before – with a serious expression on my face and also at a lower voice-volume – saying, 'I'm okay, Hol.'
'This must be hard for you, though,' she says, coming up to me and putting her arms round me, hugging me and putting the side of her head on my upper chest. Hol is smaller than me. Most people are. I put my arms round her and hug her in return. I think about patting her on the back, but she is the one trying to comfort me, so I don't.
'Little whiffy, to be blunt, Kit,' Hol murmurs, though she doesn't lift her head away from where it is, her nose near my left armpit. She briefly squeezes me a little tighter, as though to compensate for the personal criticism. 'You showering every day?'
'Normally every second day,' I tell her. This is my winter regime. In the summer I shower every day.
'Hmm. Maybe you should change your T-shirt more often, hon.'
This is a regular theme with us. Usually I wear camouflage T-shirts and trousers – mostly green NATO fatigues, though sometimes I wear the basically beige British or US desert gear that has become more and more prevalent in the sort of shop or on-line store that sells such apparel. Sand-coloured fatigues don't make much sense here amongst the browns and greens of the frequently damp north-east of England, but I don't wear this stuff because I want to crawl around the countryside unnoticed (I don't go out much beyond the garden at all, and I hate mud); I favour camo gear because you can wear it longer before you have to bother washing it. Stains just disappear. Dad says I'm a messy eater and shouldn't wipe my hands on my T-shirt so much.
Today I'm also wearing an old yellow checked shirt of Dad's and a padded olive gilet, because it's cold.
'Do you want me to go and change now?' I ask.
'No, love,' Hol says, sighing. She pushes herself away and looks up at me, her gaze criss-crossing my face. 'You getting proper help from the local health people?' She still holds me, her hands on my forearms. She blows once, quickly, out of the right side of her mouth, attempting to shift some black hair from near one eye. Holly has collar-length straight brown hair, which she dyes black.
'We're getting some help,' I tell her. 'Though there seems to have been some sort of mistake with his last Work Capability Assessment. He was too ill to get there and we got a letter a week later saying he's been put back on the able-to- work register. I think. Guy wouldn't let me see the letter.'
Holly lets go of me and turns away, shaking her head. 'Jesus fuck.'
'I wish you didn't swear so much.'
'I wish there wasn't so much to fucking swear about.'
The door is half open behind me. Across the hall the stairwell window facing the front of the house is as tightly shut as it can be but its frame is wonky and it admits both draughts and sound – and leaking water, too, if the weather is from the south. I can hear a noise of crunching stones from the driveway beyond.
I nod backwards. 'Somebody else,' I tell Hol.
We go out onto the landing, to look. Out beyond the slope of the front garden lawn, the straggle of assorted, unkempt bushes and the stone gateposts guarding the drive – the left one tipped precariously, as though trying to block the entrance, replacing the long-sold-off gates – a swell of ridged brown field hides most of the city; only the triplet towers of the Minster and the spire of St Thomas's church show dark grey above the brown corduroy of the land.
Excerpted from The Quarry by Iain M. Banks. Copyright © 2014 Iain M. Banks. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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