“Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Guy is dying and has no intention of going gentle into the good night. He summons his best friends to his crumbling house by the quarry by telling them he has found a video that they had made during their days as film students, and which would be embarrassing to all of them if it were to be made public.
So they arrive: Holly, a film critic; Pris, a nurse and social worker; Haze, Pris’s ex-husband, a bit of a loser; Alison and Rob, a corporate couple; and Paul, a lawyer standing for parliament. It’s a mixed bunch and the already existing tensions between them are ratcheted up by Guy, who enjoys manipulating people. But once they’re there, Guy can’t remember what he has done with the tape. Or so he says.
The story is narrated by his son Kit, a young man with Asperger’s, who lives with Guy and cares for him. Extremely bright (by his own admission) and observant, Kit is the heart of this book. Guy, typically, hasn’t told Kit who his mother is. He spins him various stories, including the fact that one of the three women visiting that weekend is his mother. Which could be true—or not.
The cancer that is eating Guy is hollowing out everything, much as the quarry near the house is slowly encroaching on it. Guy battles his disease with rage, taking no prisoners. It’s hard on Kit, who tries to keep things under control and whose attempts at being positive are met with fury by his father.
But Kit has his secret world: he is a player in an online game where he is highly respected and into which he disappears. Holly is his one confidante.
Both father and son, in their own ways, expose the pointlessness and the hypocrisy of the social mores that most of take for granted. Kit tries to navigate the world around him, to behave “normally”, as coached by Holly. He goes along with it, unconvinced. “‘That’s nice’ is one of those pointless phrases I never have used but for Hol. My natural response to something like what Pris had just said would be nothing. So, she is going to Ormiscrake to meet her relationship partner for breakfast. Does that really require a response from me? No.”
Guy, on the other hand, welcomes his friends with a blistering attack on how people are around the dying. “Seems to be a very embarrassing thing, even quite distressing and upsetting for people, being around someone dying, coming to visit them. Specially when they can practically see an old mucker shrivelling away in front of them, like he’s letting the side down by doing something none of us is supposed to do for another forty years or whatever. … We don’t know how to react to them, how to treat them, how to maintain the usual isn’t-everything-marvellous…bullshit like we usually do.”
This is the kind of book I love: throw a bunch of people together in a small space and see how they react to one another. But more than anything else, this is a book about life and death. It is made more poignant by the fact that it was Iain Banks’s last book—he died of cancer soon after finishing it.
Although the book sounds depressing, it isn’t. Guy is not a likeable person but he is a force of nature. Each of the characters has a distinct voice, so much so that you can tell immediately who is speaking. Kit is a wonderful character: his dry humour and observations of the people and the goings-on around him bring a lightness to the book that might have otherwise been quite dark. You root for him throughout.