nick730 (nick730) wrote,

Book review: Whit

Another thing I haven't had a chance to mention yet from my trip to Middlesbrough is my review of the book I read on the way there and back. Remember, the fact that it was something like a third of the cost of the train meant I took the coach there and back, but it was 6 hours each way - so I had to make sure I had a long book to keep me occupied. I took a couple, but ended up just reading one long book, almost cover-to-cover in the journey time - Whit by Iain Banks.

Now, leaving aside his sci-fi series with the extra middle initial, none of which I've read yet, even within his "mainstream" output Banks in an author who doesn't like to write the same sort of thing twice. Most of his books I've really enjoyed, some I've loved, a couple I've hated (A Song Of Stone is to be avoided at all costs) so he's one of the writers I most admire for his chameleon-like tendencies, and fearlessness when he could have just spent his life re-writing The Crow Road (by far my favourite of his.) So picking one of his books for a long journey can be a bit of a gamble, but one I'm glad of in this instance.

Whit falls into the category Banks himself calls his "nice" books, and is certainly the lightest of his output that I've read so far. Not that this is to take anything away from it. It's more of a social comedy than we usually get from him, and I actually laughed out loud more than once. The central character is Isis Whit, a 19-year-old girl who's lived all her life in a tiny religious community founded by her grandfather, which takes elements from various world religions as well as creating its own, and which has an Amish-like aversion to the trappings of modern life. Isis is believed to be the Elect of God because she was born on February 29th and appears to have some kind of healing power, so her life has been sheltered even compared to the other Luskentyrians (the name of Banks' made-up religion.) However when her cousin Morag goes into the big wide world and cuts off all contact with her family, Isis is chosen to go find her in "Babylondon." This starts her epic journey among squatters, racists and porn stars, which gives the book its subtitle Isis Amongst The Unsaved.

This is all very funny, but when Isis returns to her community there's a nasty surprise waiting for her, and the most satisfying part of the novel is in the mystery which is now laid out, and its solution will have to delve far into the past. In this respect Whit shares a lot with the other "nice" Iain Banks novels, Espedair Street and especially The Crow Road. Banks gives quite a gentle satire of religious hypocrisy in Whit, with the fact that this religion is so new allowing Isis' grandfather to make up its rules as he goes along, as best it suits him or the people currently in his favour. But it's never an all-out attack, with the ever-sympathetic Isis narrating, and always finding some truth to her faith, even as those around her disappoint her. Both religion and the modern world the Luskentyrians avoid are given barbs. It isn't one of Banks' most revolutionary books, but Whit is a welcome change of pace and an entertaining journey with a colourful cast of characters, all very well-drawn.
Tags: books

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