The Wasp Factory was the first published novel by Iain Banks. Originally Banks wanted to be a science fiction writer, and spent the majority of the seventies writing sci-fi novels that didn’t get picked up. After being fed up with receiving rejection after rejection, he decided to try his hand at something a little more mainstream and The Wasp Factory was the result of that, a dark twisted story with a dash of humour.
The story is told from the first person perspective of Frank, a 16 year old who is a full-on psychopath, at least at first glance. Frank lives a strange and isolated life on a small island with his eccentric father and spends most of his time completing rituals around the island, and trying to predict the future by using a device that he’s created in the attic that he’s called The Wasp Factory.
For most of the novel what The Wasp Factory actually is, is kept as a mystery. You know of its existence but Frank doesn’t describe it until one of the later chapters. It’s almost as if he expects you to know what he’s talking about at first and that it’s a completely normal thing to have in your attic. Finding out what the Factory is as well as the three children that Frank claims to have killed are two of the big driving forces of the book that keep you hooked.
At the start of the book Frank’s half-brother, Eric, has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and is slowly making his way back to the island. He was committed after having a breakdown at some point before the book starts, burning dogs alive and force feeding children maggots. Every night he calls Frank and tells him that he’s a little closer to get back home, which gives the book a sense of progression. The story is very wandering, and without much of a plot. Frank details his daily life, going out with his one friend to the pub, using the Factory, and completing his rituals. It’s the threat of Eric’s arrival that gives the book a sense of urgency and really sets off the events of the finale.
One of the more interesting ideas that the book plays with is the idea of masculinity and femininity. Frank was mauled by a dog when he was much younger, and there’s a sense that he feels inadequate because of it. The extreme violence in the book is Frank overcompensating for this. At one point in the book he graphically describes how he kills a bunch of rabbits, as well as describing how he killed three children earlier in his life. The book has some extreme violence in it, and it’s not surprising that the book has been controversial since it’s release. It’s definitely not for the light-hearted. Frank is not a likable protagonist, and his actions are cruel and mean to say the least.
I don’t believe that Frank actually commits the violence in the book. I feel that he wishes he was capable of doing so, and then passes that off as fact when telling us. The three children who die, are not explicitly by his hands, but by crafty techniques that could have been accidents. Maybe in his own mind he’s twisted memories to take blame for it. No one suspects him of any wrongdoing, and even the rabbit deaths aren’t mentioned by anyone else. Frank is far from a reliable narrator, with some of the twists later in the book showing that even he doesn’t know how unreliable he actually is, and I was left with the impression that he exaggerates the violence and murder that he’s committed. He seems to take on some of the personality traits that his brother shows, except when violence is committed by Eric others witness it.
Whether it’s real or fantasy playing out in Frank’s head, the book is still disturbed. It’s a look into the a very twisted mind and one that’s gripping from start to finish. Definitely worth reading.
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