Sixteen-year-old Frank is the protagonist of The Wasp Factory (1984) by Iain Banks, and his identity is nebulous because, as we learn early on, he was castrated as a child. The family dog attacked him as a toddler, and his father kept a jar with the tiny genitals to show his son the tragedy that had befallen him. Frank is strange, and this fact is a way of explaining that.
But the whole family is strange. They don’t live conventionally, and at times, it made it hard for me as a reader to understand and identify with the setting and circumstances. Early on, I kept asking, “Is this a dystopian novel? What is really going on here?” As it turns out, a lot of weird stuff is going on, even more than we know from the outset. Frank’s identity isn’t what we are led to believe. It isn’t what he was led to believe. This twist is revealed in the end.
But before then, the family’s surface problems are apparent. Frank’s brother Eric has purportedly escaped from an insane asylum, and Frank and his father are seemingly afraid of him being on the loose. Frank’s father is single, and all of the family’s children seem to have different, absent mothers. Frank’s younger brother Paul died as a child. Frank’s cousins Blyth and Esmerelda are also dead.
And then we learn that Frank is the one who killed them.
The stories he tells of their demises are intriguing and strange. Blyth had an artificial leg, and Frank killed him by putting a poisonous snake into the leg before Blyth out it on. That was his first murder. He kills his little brother Paul by telling him to play a game by hitting an old bomb with a plank of wood after Frank is out of range. And Esmerelda disappears by Frank’s constructing a giant kite and tangling her up in it. She is carried away never to be seen again.
These stories are intriguing, horrifying, and compelling. We are led to ask why Frank does this and how he’s gotten away with it.
As the novel progresses, with some terrifying scenes involving Eric’s possible return to the family home, we learn that something perhaps more terrifying and ugly has been done to Frank. In the end, we feel some understanding and maybe a measure of sympathy, but all of it is messed up in the extreme.
This book starts slow, but becomes gripping and strange. I was unable to look away.
The Wasp Factory is number 93 on the BBC book list.