The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (1984)

The Wasp Factory is a creepy and oddly compelling book. It is, I suppose a sort of a coming of age story about sixteen year old Frank Cauldhame. The cover blurb quote is this:
Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my younger brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.
That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through.

While somewhat sensational (shades of A Clockwork Orange!), the killings are not really the the disturbing part. The entire story is told in the first person, and while the narrator is clearly, by most measures, insane, it's a very logical and clear insanity. What is frightening is how much sense it all makes once a few basic, but crazy, assumptions are made.

The structure of the book is handled masterfully. I was struck while reading it, that if the book had been written in the third person, it would be a work of urban fantasy. So many of Frank's obsessions and rituals look "magical," and in the first person in a realistic setting they come across as artifacts of madness. In the third person, they would be "blessed" with objective truth (or at least could be) and suddenly Frank is no longer a crazed semi-psychopath, rather he is the stereotypical misunderstood magical child who sees more than those around him.

The book ends with a remarkable twist, or two depending on how you count. It is another tribute to the author that I was so engaged and caught up in the narrative, fascinated and repelled, that the twists caught me by surprise.

This is not a sweet and happy book, make no mistake. It is ugly, violent, macabre, bizarre ... and thoroughly engaging, in the literal sense; having read even the first few pages, you are likely to be hooked like a fish and dragged through the rest of this short book. When you are done, I suspect it will stay with you for a while and provide food for thought for anyone with even a hint of introspection.

Overall Grade: A-

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