On Tuesday I finished re-reading Whit by Iain Banks. When I first read this, around 14 years ago, I really enjoyed it and remember feeling it was perhaps a bit under-rated in comparison with other books in Banks' canon. 14 years on, has my opinion changed?
In a word, no, although I'm not sure whether this is under-rated any more - judging by reviews on Amazon, it seems to be quite well loved.
Whit is the story of Isis, the Elect of God, who has led a cloistered life in a religious community on the banks of the River Forth in central Scotland. Isis' world is turned upside down when it is discovered that her cousin Morag - an internationally renowned musician living in London - has found a new faith and will not be returning for the four yearly Festival of Love.
It is decided that Isis must go on a mission to London to find Morag and seek to return her to the Faith. On returning from this mission, however, Isis discovers that her world has changed even more than she had imagined and she finds herself beginning a new, more personal mission.
Banks has never made a secret of his views on organised religion and this story reflects them fully. He creates what his protagonist accepts is a cult complete with a charismatic leader, some grounding in various extant religions and it's own rituals and sacraments. Having constructed this world, he sets about tearing it apart.
The book is more than a none-too-subtle snipe at religiousity, however. Banks also explores the nature of power, the tension it creates, it's ability to corrupt and the potential for hypocracy. On the other hand, he also seeks to explore whether faith should be blind or informed - whether the good of the community should trump .
The impact of a life lived away from the rest of society is also a central theme - Isis is portrayed as both intelligent and well-versed in the ways of her people and hopelessly naive and ignorant when she leaves the community.
While these themes are there to be explored and teased, this is far from a heavy novel. Unlike many of Banks' other books, the story is told in a linear fashion - albeit with flashbacks - which makes it more accessible than, say, Walking on Glass. The pace of the book is swift and the writing has, for the most part, a lightness of touch.
After 14 years, I'm glad I enjoyed it as much as I did. I hope I'll not be leaving it another 14 years!
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