Book Review: “Whit” by Iain Banks
This was a very entertaining novel.
The story is narrated by Isis Whit, a leader in a Scottish cult, started by her grandfather, that reveres those born on 29th February. She is sent on a mission to retrieve her cousin Morag from London because she has lost her faith, and is refusing to come to the cult’s Festival Of Love (that takes place every fourth May in order to maximize the chances of a birth on 29th February).
We follow Isis to London and watch her attempts to cope with ‘normal’ society. Isis is a very appealing character with a strange mix of skill and incompetence when it comes to dealing with life. She managed to get herself into a few ridiculous scrapes on her wild goose chase, before her grandmother (who has left the cult) comes to her aid.
What I liked about this novel was Banks’s use of differing registers for different characters. Everyone seemed to speak like a caricature. Isis’s language stands out against those who are not in the cult. In conversations she sounded extremely formal, archaic and as if she were entrenched in religious jargon. Here, for example, her language is in contrast to Roadkill – her cousin’s girlfriend:
“As an officer of the Luskentyrian Sect I’m empowered to officiate at all religious ceremonies including marriages, and there is a precedent for the officiating cleric himself – or herself – being one of the parties to the marriage.”
“Freaky,” Roadkill said.
Isis’s cousin, Zeb, only speaks in minor sentences. His monosyllabic conversation again contrasts with Isis’s long-windedness. The Luskentyrians do not eat animals that walk on two legs, such as chicken. Zeb wonders whether or not Kangaroos are fair game:
“My pal,” Zeb said. “Ozzie. Had Some. Said. Like. Great. Best meat. Ever tasted. Lean. Delicious. Totally. Brutal. Brilliant. Really.”
“Hmm, I said. “In that case I’d probably err on the side of generosity; I have always been of the opinion that God does not normaly make things appetizing for no good reason.”
Isis has cause, to resolve the novel, to undertake some urgent academic research. She calls on another relative who Banks characterizes as a stereotype of a Glaswegian student for assistance. I thought this speech was great (if a little unfair to Glaswegian students…) as a stereotype:
“You wanna do this now? Aw, rats, man! This is Saturday, Is! We have to go out and get steamin’ and listen to jazz and stuff and do a pub crawl or come back here and drink cans and bet on football scores and go out and get paralytic and get black pudding suppers and chips and go to the QMU and dance like maniacs and try and get off with nurses and end up back here having an impromptu soiree, like as not and throw up in the garden and throw things out of the window and call for a pizza and play bowls in the hall with empty cans!”
Isis was a great character, a flawed narrator and a truly decent person. The book poked fun at religious legalism and championed common decency which is no bad thing.
I have focused on the lighter side of this book, but it dealt with all kinds of darker moments – sexual exploitation, moral bankruptcy, deception and power/control.
If the novel had a weakness it was that it depended a little too heavily on coincidence. On two occasions what ‘happened’ to be on the TV were game changers. But hey. I’ll forgive those… as they were part of the point, I suspect.