By Iain Banks
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, he has already got three murders
under his belt. He has 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 though, 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 he, at least, is 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;
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. 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 he is old enough to visit the
Porteneil Library, and check up on a few 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 books 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. The biggest question in the book though is, of
course, exactly what is the wasp factory? The reader receives
hints here and there, but again, must wait until the end of the book.
The Wasp Factory
is 244 pages long, I’ve read it twice, and I have never read a book
quite like it. It 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 the reader 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.