First published back in February of 1984 by Macmillian, ‘The Wasp Factory’ introduced Scottish author Iain Banks to the world, with this shockingly controversial debut novel. For a previously unknown author, Banks created quite a stir with this first publication; receiving a mixture of conflicting responses within the media. So proud of the vast array of feedback received, that in later editions, Banks included a large number of quotes from these reviews - both the positive and the supposedly negative.
Sixteen-year-old Frank Cauldhame enjoys a secluded existence spent sacrificing and killing the local wildlife upon the small island where he lives with his father.
Frank’s elaborate torture devices include a discarded clock-face which he had previously scavenged, that he has lovingly converted into a torture chamber for wasps. Furthermore, Frank believes that this prised piece of his macabre hobby has the ability to predict moments of the future. This miniature torture chamber has been appropriately named ‘The Wasp Factory’.
Along with this ‘Wasp Factory’, Frank also maintains a number of sacrifice poles that are scattered around their island. These cruel symbolic totems were erected by Frank to provide some form of spiritual protection to the island and preserve the antics that Frank dedicates his time to.
This singular existence is interspersed with an unhealthy obsession with weapons (most of which are homemade) and the occasional drinking session with his dwarf friend Jamie. This stunted lifestyle remains purposefully at a distance from the rest of society, on account of an overwhelming fear of the effects that such a chaotic world can have on his sanity.
This fear has grown from when Frank’s brother, Eric, was put into a mental asylum after an extremely harrowing and tragic incident which occurred whilst Eric was training at a hospital. Since then, Eric has had a tendency towards performing horrific acts of animal cruelty; specifically with setting fire to any dogs that he comes into contact with.
However, recently Frank has been receiving phonecalls from Eric. Worrying phonecalls informing Frank that he has escaped from the asylum and is making his way back home. Although Frank holds a great amount of love for his brother, the knowledge that he is actually on his way back home terrifies Frank.
With the arrival of Eric drawing nearer, Frank’s life is about to be turned on its head. All of a sudden Frank finds himself faced with more change. There’s just too much going on at once. And it’s a struggle just to keep your neck above the rising madness of the world...
Written in the first-person-perspective, from the very outset, Banks details a litany of harrowing actions involving deplorable animal cruelty in the inhumanly detached way that the principal character of Frank views his life. With each new insight into the miniature atrocities caused at the hands of this psychotic youth, the reader can’t help but squirm at the delusional (although you often forget that it is entirely fictional) mind that is so cleverly exposed in these pages.
Snippets of Frank’s upbringing, his father’s neglectful yet brutal attitude, as well as Eric’s imminent arrival, paint a truly disturbing picture of a collapsing and ultimately dysfunctional family. With regular injections of the darkest possible humour, Banks simply adds an even more haunting undertone to the novel’s overall premise. Furthermore, with our principal character narrating each event to the reader via the first-person-perspective, the reader is worryingly drawn towards sympathising with this psychopathic misfit.
In a bizarre corruption of a coming-of-age novel, ‘The Wasp Factory’ floods the reader with a barrage of difficult questions throughout the storyline. Each turn in events creates a readjustment of how the reader interprets Frank Cauldhame’s motives. And the final twist to the tale forces a complete rethinking of Frank and what we, as the outside observer, have taken for granted about the character.
The novel hammers home the brutal consequences of the abuse of power over those who we are supposedly responsible for. Self-deception and misguided trust forms a solid framework for the novel’s underlying messages. Each page casts a darker representation of a monstrous side to humankind, that in itself, can easily be forgiven for the circumstances that surround it.
For the sheer disturbing strength to this tale, ‘The Wasp Factory’ is a tough novel to beat. The underlying truths behind the premise of the story allow for a callous and gritty quality to the tale. Frank’s life is hard to swallow and even harder to ignore. This is humanity with its nerves exposed; unbound cruelty and gross neglection from an uncaring society.
The novel is as original as it is shocking. Each stage in our character’s life is well thought out and carefully revealed to the reader. The harsh cruelties and emotionless responses to these, perfectly reflect that of our principle characters psychotic mind.
This is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing but thoroughly gripping novels that I have ever encountered. Even now, some ten years since first reading the novel, the brutality of the tale seems as fresh as it was when I first picked up the book. This is not a novel to be overlooked.
The novel runs for a total of 244 pages.
© DLS Reviews