Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Canal Dreams - Iain Banks

Hisako Onoda is a famous concert cellist travelling to Europe by sea, as she is afraid to fly. Her ship happens to be traversing the Panama Canal during a period of civil war; along with several other ships, she ends up stuck in a lagoon halfway along, waiting for the situation to clear up so that it's safe enough to travel again. In this enforced stagnation, Hisako dives, and dreams, and mulls over her past, until the rebel army commandeers the ships and the war comes much closer than anyone wanted.

Like many of Banks's earlier M-less straight-fiction works, this is a strange and dark little piece, though rather shorter than most of his other books. The actual plot is linear and very simple, but is interspersed with the protagonist's dreams; as the real-world events become darker and nastier, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the dreams from the reality. In this respect, it's more of a literary piece than a plot-driven story; normally I don't go a bundle on style over substance, but the bitterly triumphant ending here makes up for any early literary pretensions.

Hisako is an intriguing character study - a strange, lonely lady with hard passions boiling beneath her impassive face. This is her story; the book is entirely from her viewpoint, and we see her dreams, her desires and her memories, but come away feeling that she's still a mystery. Is this the point of the book? It's hard to tell, and that's one of the main drawbacks here. Is Banks just giving us a character sketch with added violence? Is he trying to make a political point about what's behind the war? And what's with all the dreams? Speaking for myself, I only reread this because the writing is good and I like the ending, but the whole thing, devoid of an actual story, does seem a little pointless. Ah well.



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