It’s that time again to discover another dazzling debut, thanks to our Desmond Elliott Prize alumni. Today we hear from Head of Books and Features for the New Statesman and 2012 judge of the Prize, Tom Gatti.
” “Crassly explicit”; “gloatingly sadistic”; “repulsive”; “a work of unparalleled depravity”. I remember vividly flicking through the quotes at the front of The Wasp Factory in Woking Waterstone’s in the mid-90s: the decision to include the bad reviews with the good was a stroke of genius and a magnetic field for a teenage reader like me, looking for something a bit edgier than To Kill a Mockingbird. The first sentence – “I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped” – confirmed my suspicion that this was uncharted territory.”
“In the novel, a 16-year-old boy, living with a taciturn father, roams a remote Scottish island, sticking mice heads on poles, reminiscing about the cousins he has killed, and constructing complex prophetic rituals based on insect torture. The unpleasant details that so offended critics give the book a blackly comic matter-of-factness – the narrator makes his outrageous behaviour seem almost reasonable – and they also allow Banks to build a coherent, alien-but-recognisable world on the island, in the manner of the science fiction novels he went on to write. I’ve always thought of The Wasp Factory as the perfect debut novel: the shock factor grabs you and then the talent takes over, until the seriously satisfying sting in the story’s tale. I interviewed Banks twice; the last time just eight months before he died. He signed my battered, treasured paperback of The Wasp Factory: a book that will always take me back to Woking Waterstone’s and the thrill of anticipation.”