The Steep Approach to Garbadale is the third novel I’ve read by Iain Banks, and my favourite so far of his books. I started with The Quarry a few years ago and nearly gave it up because I couldn’t get interested in the story, but by the end of the book I had been well and truly caught. Next for me came Espedair Street, the tragic-comic story of a one time rock-god.
The Steep Approach to Garbadale is the story of the Wopuld family, whose ancestor created an enormously successful game called Empire!, which is known as Liberty! in the USA. At the time the story takes place, the family run the business which has made them all rich, and are considering an American company’s offer to buy them out.
The main character is Alban McGill, who had worked in the family business before leaving, disillusioned, after the rest of the family voted to sell 25 percent of the company to the Spraint Corporation some years ago. Since leaving the family business, Alban had sold all but a token amount of his shares, and worked as a forester. Alban lives in a group house with friends whose low socio-economic status provide an interesting contract to Alban’s family’s fabulous wealth.
Alban is a man whose past has deeply affected his present. He is a good bloke, caring and kind, with good morals and values, but he cannot commit to his girlfriend, who doesn’t actually want much from him.
Alban’s commitment issues are caused by his mother suiciding when he was a baby, and a teenage romance he had with his cousin Sophie which he never got over. It doesn’t help that the Wopuld family act more like business partners than as a family. An example of this is Alban calling his grandmother, who is a controlling witch, by her first name, Win. (The connotations of his grandmother’s name are a clue to her character).
The present day story begins with Alban’s cousin, Fielding, tracking Alban down to ask his help to convince other family members not to sell their shares to the Spraint Corporation, in order that the business can remain a family business. Alban agrees to help Fielding and they start to do the rounds of the family. There are dotty Great-Aunts, black sheep and cousins, aunts and uncles galore.
The story moves around in time, telling of Alban’s childhood, the ill-fated romance with his cousin, travels around the world as a young man, and of his time working for the family business.
By the time I had read three-quarters of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I was busting to know the answers to the following questions;
- Why did Alban’s mother suicide?
- Why was Alban’s grandmother so cruel?
- Why did I want Alban to end up with his cousin Sophie, when his girlfriend was so right for him?
- Would the family sell Empire! to the Spraint Corporation?
I got the feeling that Iain Banks used his characters in this novel as a mouthpiece for various issues he feels strongly about, for example, the War on Terror got a caning as did American capitalism, which Alban likens in a speech to his family to Imperialism. The approach to religion was interesting too, as Alban recognises his love for Sophie has similarities to a cult religion.
By the conclusion of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I felt deeply satisfied with the way the stories and questions were resolved. The only things left to say are, I wish Empire! was a real game, and I’m looking forward to reading another Iain Banks novel.