RogerBW's Blog

Whit, Iain Banks 29 January 2015

1995: Isis Whit is the Elect of God and heir-designate to the small cult of Luskentyrianism, the granddaughter of its founder; she's lived all her life in its holdings near Dunblane. But now one of the members in London has fallen out of contact in an odd way, and it's up to Isis to travel outside and try to get her back.

A strange book, this one, not neatly fitting into any standard genre; I suppose "satirical comedy" would be closest. Its central theme seems to be praise for the power of even the most broken religion, in the hands of a true believer, to help a good person to become better, and how that power is completely separate from any supernatural validity the religion might or might not have. (And this is mirrored in Isis herself; she believes she has a gift of healing, but this isn't by any means the most important thing about her.)

I certainly don't think the book can be described as anti-religious. What it opposes is more the idea of unquestioning respect for anything that calls itself religious: if an idea is worth having, Banks seems to be saying, it can stand up to some gentle mockery, and if it can't maybe it wasn't that great in the first place.

The book succeeds largely because of its narrator. Isis is, of course, sheltered, and rather ignorant of the outside world, but never stupid, and preachy only as a defence mechanism; she's strong-minded, and her faith really is a rock for her.

The history and doctrine of Luskentyrianism are recounted in asides as the story progresses. Like any religion, but more obviously than older ones, it's a very human endeavour, with major behavioral rules arising from single trivial incidents. If you are a nasty cynical person like me, you will work out what was going on well before Isis does; fortunately, that isn't the core of the story, and you don't lose much enjoyment by solving it early. She does rather get the answers handed to her on a plate, though.

The minor members of the large cast don't always get enough time to develop personalities, and the major villain is a bit of a weak point, largely because he's so obvious about his villainy. I think the book would have worked better if there hadn't been a blatant bad guy at all, just confusion and people doing what they thought best (which is mostly what's going on in the rest of the book). Everything gets wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly, in the manner of a revenge-fantasy.

But I think part of my reaction to that may be an objection to not having been able to spend more time reading about these interesting people.

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