The Wasp Factory is at its core a coming-of-age tale - only much more gruesome and disturbing - set in 80s Scotland. The story is told through the eyes of a deranged sixteen year old boy called Frank who lives with his eccentric father. Frank was abandoned by his mother at birth, and his older half-brother Eric has been confined to a mental institution for setting fire to dogs and forcing children to eat maggots. I think the less said about the plot the better; there are many surprises and part of the intrigue is not knowing exactly what has happened in Frank’s past. The Wasp Factory features a ‘big twist’ at the end, which at first I thought was just bizarre and slightly predictable, but after some thought I came to realise how well it fitted with the coming-of-age aspect and Frank’s resolution with growing up and becoming a man. As such, The Wasp Factory is a novel that forces you to think about it a long time after you have finished reading.
Something I feel is important to mention is that at times this book is very difficult to read; if you have strong aversions to reading about animal torture and/or child murder, I would advise you to avoid The Wasp Factory, which features both of these as prevalent themes throughout. There are some particularly gruesome passages and some disturbing images that are quite hard to stomach.
The novel reminds me of a grotesque combination of The Catcher in the Rye and American Psycho; there is even a similar shower scene to rival Patrick Bateman’s detailed routine, but then Frank surprises you by saying he cut the labels off his shoes because he doesn’t want to be a walking advertisement for anybody - the opposite to image and fashion label obsessed Bateman.
The Wasp Factory is a really weird book. Frank is a strange kid; he sacrifices rabbits and puts their heads on poles all around the island on which he lives, and he keeps a ‘Wasp Factory’ which is a clock with a tunnel leading to a death device behind each number (such as a large spider, drowning, burning) into which he feeds wasps and uses as a sort of fortune-teller, according to which tube the wasp chooses. I couldn’t decide if the book was maybe slightly too weird for me in fact. It’s gritty and disturbing, and Banks manages to demonstrate how deranged Frank is with subtlety and precision. He doesn’t even seem too odd to begin with, until he starts to talk about his murders and animal tortures in such an off-hand, casual manner, sometimes almost dropping them into the narrative as though they are of little importance or consequence.
The Wasp Factory is a deeply disturbing but clever novel; it leaves a lasting impact and is worth a read if you think you can handle it. It is repulsive, shocking and raw, with an odd combination of a naive narrative voice with vivid visual gruesomeness. It is a coming-of-age tale with an edge, a story of growing up and learning who you really are, all against a backdrop of psychosis, trauma and murder.