Sam's Reviews > The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
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M 50x66
's review
Sep 28, 2011

really liked it
Read in September, 2011

Frank Cauldhame is a troubled teenager leading an isolated life on an island with his father. He is, in fact, *very* troubled. He loves torturing animals, including decapitating mice, birds, wasps, etc. He is highly adept at making home made bombs, and revels in building miniature dams and models of villages downstream, and then blowing up the dams to flood the villages and kill their (imaginary) inhabitants. His father is very controlling, and also distant. And, as we learn, Frank has committed three cold-blooded murders as a child without being caught; having carried out these murders at the tender ages of six, eight, and nine, killing children who are his relatives.

But, as Frank repeatedly assures us in this first person narrative, he is sane. It is his older brother, Eric, who likes to set dogs on fire and feed maggots and worms to children who is actually insane. And, now Eric has escaped from the mental institution and is on his way back home.

Frank does have some extenuating circumstances. He has been home schooled by his domineering and eccentric father, educated in a in-depth fashion but with some obvious gaps in his development. His father never registered his birth, and so Frank has no official governmental recognition of his existence; his fear of being found by the government is part of what keeps him on the island. Finally, Frank has a genital mutilation that has maimed him seriously: one wonders how this has affected his development.

All this might seem disturbing or off putting, but Frank narrates everything with an engaging and buoyant voice; in fact, you tend to agree him that maybe he is sane. He has a real enthusiasm for life, and real talents for things like manufacturing bombs. Even his murders seem like a distant past thing, and he writes "It [murdering] was just a stage I was going through."

Many mysteries remain as you read. What is hidden in the study his father so carefully keeps locked? Why is there a huge amount of cordite in the basement of the house? (Frank is unable to reach it and cannot use it for his bomb making, however.) Why triggered Eric's insanity? And what will happen when he arrives home? It is clear through out the book that the story is heading towards a climatic event, but the nature of the event cannot be explained here. Of course, one expects it to be dramatic and unexpected, but the ending is unexpected in a completely different way than one expects. Certainly, the book is filled with clues foreshadowing the final revelations, but I personally completely missed them.

At times the book rises to social satire. There is a short rant against the insanity of politicians and financial leaders, that was probably meant as an echo from the sixties but seems very relevant to present times. Likewise, when evaluating Frank's sanity, one might reflect that his energy, his mechanical abilities at bomb making, and his pleasure in destruction might make him a valued member of society, for instance, an ideal member of an elite tactical fighting force. The bar scenes and drinking scenes, not to mention the way Frank is raised, are clear indictments of the way society treats young adults and denies them opportunities, or on second thought, perhaps indictments of the way young people fritter away their lives. (It makes one think of today's high unemployment rates for young adults.) Finally, Frank's misogyny is a caricature of stereotypes about women's roles, presumably as reflected in TV shows.

The book was not as shocking as I expected from the reviews on the book jacket. In real life, Frank would be a sick and monstrous person; in the book he comes off as relatively pleasant. Many other reviewers have mentioned the shocking nature of the the event of "What happened to Eric" that drove Eric insane. But even this is milder than expected. Nor is it an implausible event. In fact, a similar event happened to a close friend of mine in college while he was working in a hospital as a computer programmer. In his case, it involved an old man instead of a baby: my friend just completely fainted away.

I might have given this five stars, but I deducted one star as a bit of warning that some readers may find the book too distressing.
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Kat (Lost in Neverland) This sounds like a terrible book. Torturing animals and killing them and children is inexcusable and the person responsible should be killed themselves, or put in jail for the rest of their lives. Like Michael Vick should have. No offense to your review, just placing my opinion.

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