Whit - Iain Banks Maybe a 4-star. I'm still digesting.

Review to come.

The review has arrived:

If we could give stars to individual characters, I’d give Isis, the narrator of Iain Banks’ novel, five, which is why I’m revising my initial rating of the book as a whole to four stars.

The novel begins in the religious community of High Easter Offerance, the base of the Luskentyrians, a sort-of-Amish-like sect that has rejected much of modern civilization. The community is ruled by Salvador, its founder, and Isis is his grand-daughter. Unlike Salvador’s other children, Isis is also the Elect of God because (like her grand-father and father) she was born on February 29 (she’s a “Leapyearian”) and heir apparent. She also appears to have an ability to “heal,” though Banks is very coy about (and Isis herself doubts) whether or not it’s real. When it appears that her cousin Morag, a “world-renowned baryton soloist,” has become apostate, she is sent out into the world to bring her back. It turns out that things are not quite what they seem, either with Morag or with the community’s motivations for sending Isis on her mission, but it gives Banks opportunity to look at the phenomenon of religion – how beliefs arise, how they’re manipulated, how modernity clashes with traditional faith, and spirituality vs. religion.

Unlike most of his other mainstream work - The Wasp Factory, Complicity or A Song of Stone, for example - Whit is a satirical comedy. Nothing really “awful” happens to anyone in the story, and Banks is having a great deal of fun telling us about Isis’ adventures in the world of the Cluttered (one of many labels given to the unsaved).

As hinted, the novel succeeds wholly because of its narrator – Isis. She is a naïve but not stupid or ignorant 19-year-old, whose remarkable self-confidence and belief in her grand-father’s religion stand her in good stead as she confronts her co-religionists and the unsaved she meets when she leaves High Easter Offerance. Despite some disillusioning events (her brother betrays her, her grand-father tries to molest her, she learns the truth about the cult’s origins, etc.), Isis doesn’t despair or become cynical, but turns the tables on her “enemies” and succeeds in redeeming her faith and her wayward relatives – probably. Banks manages to end the novel on a somewhat ambiguous note – Isis confronts her grand-father and brother with the truth and extorts control of the cult from them but the “truth” she promises to tell the community is at the end is left unspoken (or was it the entire preceding narrative?):

“…Here was what mattered; here, looking out over these stunned, bewildered, awed, even fearful faces, here was action at a distance, here was palpable power, here was where belief – self-belief and shared belief – could truly signify.

Truth, I thought.
Truth; there is no higher power. It is the ultimate name we give our Maker.

I took a deep breath and an abrupt, fleeting dizziness shook me, energising and intoxicating and leaving me feeling strong and calm and able and without fear.

I cleared by throat.

‘I have a story to tell you,’ I said.” (p. 455)

The other thing about the novel I think deserves mention is Luskentyrianism – the religious faith Banks has concocted. If I were looking for a faith to follow, I could easily see myself following this one. On pages 52-55 of my edition, Isis succinctly lays out the beliefs tenets:

1. God is both and neither male and female, and is referred to as the singular “God” or the third-person plural “Them.”
2. God is omniscient but only “strategically” not “tactically.” I.e., They know what the ultimate outcome will be but They don’t know all the details.
3. God is omnipotent but doesn’t intervene in Their creation unless “things go either apotheosistically well or apocalyptically bad.”
4. Our universe is just one of many They have created.
5. Man is a “deformed child” – God loves us but They regret that we aren’t perfect.
6. There is no Devil; the world’s ills are caused by Man’s inability to clearly see God’s radiant splendor.
7. A fragment of God’s spirit resides in Man.
8. Man’s intelligence, necessary to God’s purpose for him, has nevertheless corrupted his perception of Their purpose.
9. Man must learn “to stand and walk with his spirit rather than crawl with his technology.” What this means is that the Luskentyrians reject most technology, much like the Amish.
10. God’s ultimate aim for Man is unknowable in his present state but will be revealed as he evolves spiritually (leaving open the possibility – in fact, the need – for future prophets).
11. Death is reunion with God.
12. Man can achieve perfection.
13. Body and soul are a unity.
14. Physical love is the communing of souls. This is not “free love” in its worst, stereotypical sense (like drug-addled orgies) but the acceptance of love and its physical aspects in its many forms. As Isis explains, generally the community encourages stable relationships; it’s only at the sects quadrennial Festival of Love that promiscuity is encouraged so that the odds of another Leapyearian being born are increased.
15. All religions contain grains of Truth but are “cluttered up” by the misinterpretations of their followers.
16. God speaks to his people at random moments; it’s prophets like Salvador who hear Them most clearly.
17. Since merit and calmness “are to be found in the out-of-the-way, the byways of life…there is goodness and the potential for enlightenment in doing things differently, seemingly just for the sake of it.”

This is definitely a must read for the Banks fan but I think newcomers to the author might enjoy it, as well.