Newest Review: ... necessary with the mangled mess of tenants in the faith having no internal logic to them, making the whole thing seem a little silly. T... more
Blac or Whit?
Whit - Iain Banks
Member Name: calypte
Whit - Iain Banks
Date: 18/10/02, updated on 18/10/02 (1263 review reads)
Advantages: Iain Banks, Some very interesting threads
Disadvantages: Very weak ending, Not enough done with the material, Some 'disappearing' plot elements!
Even though I said I’m a big fan, I still haven’t read all of Banks’ novels. I *own* them all, but have been rationing myself in the reading department. This is why I’ve only now just read his eighth (non-sci-fi) book, Whit, first published in 1995.
Fellow readers of his books will know that Banks likes the weirder side of life, so it really seems quite natural to find him writing about a religious cult in Scotland. The story is told through the eyes of 19-year-old Isis Whit, a third generation Luskentyrian. That is, Isis’ grandfather founded the cult, and in Luskentyre, hence the name.
This point of view of the narrative is very important, in my opinion. Isis has spent her entire life within the confines of the isolated cult atmosphere, and so her views are obviously biased. I get the feeling that Banks is *not* a religious man; however, through the character of Isis he manages to poke fun at religion while at the same time not. In other words, Isis is a devoted follower, and so describes her way of life from a believer’s point of view. Still, her earnest approval of all facets of this ‘religion’ is laid bare to mockery from the reader.
A perfect example is the, um, sexual aspect of the cult. We are told that, perhaps not unnaturally, there has been a lot of press interest over the years towards the Luskentyrians and their way of life. This mainly focuses on a suspicion that any isolated cult is merely an excuse for hippy-ish ‘free love’ and one giant orgy. Isis adamantly denies that this is true; however, she soon goes on to reveal that the religio
us practice of calling fellow cult members ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is perhaps a little more literally accurate in some cases - it seems that grandfather Salvador has been ‘spreading his seed’ most liberally!
Furthermore, the novel opens not long before the Luskentyrian Festival of Love. This is held every four years, about nine months before February 29th every leap year. It is a member born on that date who is given the care of the whole Community, so it seems wise to give nature as much of a helping hand as possible!
As the book starts, we are told that Isis’ cousin Morag is due to be guest of honour at this year’s Festival, returning to the Community from her ‘missionary’ work in London. However, Morag, it seems, has renounced her faith and gone missing. The worried Community decides that someone must find and talk to Morag - and Isis has very personal reasons for wanting her cousin at the Festival. You see, Isis, born on February 29th, is the current Elect of God, due not only to take over leadership of the Community, but under some unspoken pressure to produce another in her family line born on that special date. This is not a concept (‘scuse the pun!) she is at all happy with. Actually, this is a dark undercurrent in the storyline which I feel is never properly explored - it spends a lot of time being mentioned, but is never really concluded to my satisfaction.
This isn’t the only thread in the story I think gets the same treatment. Several ideas are introduced, adding a certain mysterious interest in the story, only to fizzle out or at least be ignored in the end. It’s very disappointing. It wouldn’t be such a big complaint for me if not for the fact that such a big deal is made about some of these points. For instance, the whole novel opens with a recounting of a mystical event from Isis’ childhood, where she apparently brings a dead fox back to
life. She repeatedly mentions her ‘power’, puzzling over it and leaving open-ended queries about this ability. Fair enough, there is an attempt to bring some concluding aspect to this, but with nowhere near the magnitude such a concept merits.
Have I gotten ahead of myself? Forgive me - I didn’t want to just give a straight run down of plot, and these discussions seemed to fit into my flow of thought. Um, well. Isis is indeed sent out to try and find Morag. It’s not as easy as it might seem, especially to a person whose religion forbids the use of normal transportation, and it turns out that Morag hasn’t exactly been living the life her family had thought she was! I’ll leave the surprise to the book, shall I? But I will say - Morag isn’t the only one who hasn’t been telling the whole truth.
To be honest, in hindsight the plot element isn’t really particularly strong. What Isis’ travels should highlight is the differences between the Community’s spartan, technology-avoiding lifestyle and the modern world that we the reader are so familiar with. Again, I was disappointed with this - it just could have amounted to so much more, in my opinion. What we have is Isis wide-eyed and uncomfortable with the mechanised world, finding technology a distraction to anything approaching spirituality or enlightenment. It’s not a new idea in literature, and other than stating it, Banks doesn’t seem to do too much with the idea. Certainly no wonderful revelations seem to be forthcoming, and in the end Isis cannot resist the practicality and convenience of modern appliances, yet doesn’t seem to embrace them either.
More interesting is Isis’ return to a Community where it is beginning to feel that everything may not be what it seems. One element I was impressed with (and I know, I haven’t given the impression of there being too much of it!) was the sudden loss of be
longing - always a member of a tightly-knit group, Isis arrives back to what feels like a conspiracy, and finds herself completely outcast and isolated for the first time in her life. This stands out for me as the part of the novel that ‘worked’ best, although it’s a shame it’s a fairly minor element.
As well as Isis’ adventures, we have alternating segments telling of the birth and development of the cult. These seem much more interesting in the main. Again, the strong feeling from these is that Iain Banks is somewhat scoffing at religion in general - or at least at his own created one if you want to be less controversial. Here we have one man, Salvador, who claims to have had a revelation from God, and starts his own cult. By the time we join the tale in Isis’ day, Salvador is still writing and improving the tenets of his religion. These, it seems, are largely based on practicalities or personal issues rather that on the word of the Supreme Being. For instance, the Community is forbidden from entering any shop premises; it turns out that in the early days of the sect, the shop on the small island of Luskentyre was owned by the family of the two sisters Salvador marries - yes, two - and so they must avoid the shop for other than spiritual reasons!
As in The Crow Road, one of my favourite Iain Banks novels, I get the impression that the real interest in this story lies in the past, and the present tale is merely the revealing of this past. In fact, I’d say that Banks has been using the same template for Whit as he had for that previous effort, and didn’t quite manage to live up to it. He is very good at building the tension, hinting at traumatic events that lie buried. However, the problem I had was that the Big Revelations that are supposed to pull this entire story together just aren’t very… big. Unlike The Crow Road, or even his first novel, The Wasp Factory, there was just no sense of
shock for me in this book.
To make matters worse, the conclusion of Whit is very weak - it really does just seem to fizzle out. In hindsight, I realise that the ending wasn’t supposed to be the climax, but only a wrapping up. So the problem was that the actual climax - those revelations about the past and the present - just wasn’t up to the job. I wanted a moment where the roller coaster reached the peak, and I realised with a sudden rush what everything had meant - and I just didn’t get it.
Oh dear, I've done nothing but moan, and to be honest this isn’t a bad book. As always, Banks writes well and the story is a pleasure to read, and has a lovely dark humour running through. Several very interesting concepts crop up in Whit: religion, technology versus a simpler lifestyle, pressures to live up to your expected role, family, being an outsider… however, although I can pick out these elements, I don’t feel I’ve really understood anything the author may have been trying to get across about them. On the other hand, maybe I’m just looking for too much, and more depth than was intended. The story, however, still failed to live up to expectations, largely due to a poor conclusion.
Disappointing as I found this, I’m not going to deny it a recommendation - I would just say go in with your eyes open. As this isn’t a *bad* book, saying I don’t recommend it seems too forceful, somehow. I don’t regret having read this, especially as I am an Iain Banks fan, and can well see myself giving it another go at some point, to see if it reads better second time around. There are interesting and entertaining threads, and enough enjoyment along the way to support suggesting anyone reads this book. However, a poor conclusion and disappointing climax means I will only offer three stars. Enter at your own risk!
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online: Tesco seems to be cheapest at £6.15, or Amazon at £6.39, but both have huge postal charges. Blackwells is £7.99 with free postage, though.