The Wasp Factory is written in the first person and the viewpoint character is a sixteen-year-old boy named Frank Cauldhame. Frank is not an average teenager and, young though he is, Frank has already got three murders under his belt. He’s got away with all of them.
You don’t have to get very far into the story before you realize that you have entered the head of a madman. Frank is as clever as he is unbalanced and he appears to be an expert on some rather nasty subjects. He is, for example, frighteningly adept at making his own explosives and has built up quite a stash of pipe bombs.
Frank lives with his father, Angus, on a Scottish island. Like his son, Angus is more than a little unconventional, even a little eccentric maybe, but at least he’s harmless, and can be quite entertaining. Angus has an obsession with measurements and is proud of the fact that he knows the dimension and capacities of nearly everything in his home. This is a skill that Frank has been forced to learn as well.
Angus does not work, so he spends most of his time on the island, where he has educated Frank himself rather than send him to school. Sending him to school would have been difficult anyway because Frank does not officially exist because his birth was never registered.
Frank has received a good education from his father. Angus is a very intelligent man—a doctor of chemistry, or perhaps biochemistry, Frank is not sure which. He is in no doubt about his father’s strange sense of humour though. For many years Frank believed that Fellatio was a character in Hamlet, but now that Frank is old enough to visit the Porteneil Library, and check up on things, Angus knows better than to try and trick his son.
One of the mysteries in The Wasp Factory is where Angus’ money comes from. This is never fully explained, but Frank believes that his father may receive a royalty payment for a patent of some kind, or else is just living on whatever old money the Cauldhame family has hidden away. That might be the truth of it because the family has been in the area for over two hundred years and used to own a lot of land. Even the local pub is named after them.
Frank’s only real friend is a dwarf named Jamie and at least once a week Frank walks across the bridge to the mainland and into the town to have a few drinks with him in the Cauldhame Arms. Frank usually leans against a pillar while Jamie sits on his shoulders and rests his pint on top of Frank’s head. It paints an odd picture in the mind, but it can be rather amusing; especially when Jamie is trying to chat up women. Frank has no interest in women, a childhood accident saw to that.
The exact details about Frank’s accident remain a mystery until well into the book, but the whole truth of the matter is not revealed until the final pages. Frank’s ‘accident’ is only one of many mysteries that can be found within the pages of The Wasp Factory though. For instance, like Frank, the reader is forced to spend a lot of time wondering what secrets are locked behind the door of Angus’ Laboratory. Then there is the mystery of Frank’s brother Eric, who has just escaped from a mental institution and is making his way back to the island. What exactly drove Eric mad? And how many dogs will he burn before he reaches home? We can guess why Eric hates dogs (because of what happened to Frank), but why is he obsessed with worms and maggots? And why has he been known to try and force children to eat them? The answer to this question is revealed in one of the book’s more disturbing scenes.
Eric might be the family’s official madman, but at least he only presents a true danger to animals. Frank, on the other hand, who is believed to be at least reasonably normal, is like a ticking time bomb that could go off at any moment. Or not. All it needs is the right trigger. However, the biggest question in the book though is, what is the wasp factory? The reader receives hints here and there, but again, must wait until the end of the book to get any answers.
The Wasp Factory is 244 pages long, I’ve read it twice, and have never read a book like it. The Wasp Factory is as amusing as it is scary and the way that Iain Banks mixes these two ingredients together plays a big part in giving the book its unique literary flavour. The central character, Frank, is very easy to like, even though you can never be sure what he will do next or whether or not he will kill again. Most of the other characters are also easy to like, with the possible exception of Angus’ second wife, who readers only gets to meet in flashback.
The last couple of pages of the book, where Frank compares life to his wasp factory, are very poignant and powerful. The Wasp Factory is a great story and, although some of the scenes are quite shocking, Frank is such an interesting character that many readers should enjoy the book, even those who do not normally read horror novels.