Whit by Iain Banks

A review of the satirical literary coming-of-age novel Whit by Iain Banks.

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Whit, or Isis Amongst the Unsaved, is the story of Isis Whit, a young girl also known as The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, who is a member of a secluded cult in Scotland founded by her grandfather. Her cousin—a famous musician—is due to be the guest of honour at the Luskentyrian Festival of Love, but she has stopped engaging in correspondence. Unlike the majority of the cult, she lives in the outside world, amongst the Unsaved. Whit is then sent on a quest to London to find her and bring her back to the commune in time for the festival, else she will have to take her place at the centre of what promises to be a worrying and prolonged sexual experience.

Iain Banks shows great skill in narrating from the perspective of a teenage girl who has grown up within the confines of a religious community and whose faith initially defines her personality. Other than visiting a local church to play the pipe organ, she is entirely separated from the world, and throughout her journey she learns more and more about life outside the commune, her misconceptions of society, and herself. Her personal evolution from blinkered follower to a person in her own right makes for a fascinating character study, and as the eccentricities of her character emerge, so her personality becomes more defined and well-rounded.

Particular attention is paid to Whit’s interpretation of items, events, actions, and people, leading to a wonderful experience as we view our own drab and normal world through her naïve eyes. From her starting moments in the commune she lectures and preaches to us—the readers—about her beliefs and what is right and wrong. As she discovers more about the world, herself, and her faith, so her stance becomes less resolute, and the crisis of faith she struggles with makes for a delightful character arc.

Banks is a master storyteller, yet the opening chapters of this novel are almost off-putting in their distance. We watch from afar—despite the intimacy of the first-person point of view—yet the more Whit is immersed in our normality, the closer we are drawn to her. We get to know her as she does herself, and about a third of the way in there is a moment where she confronts some bullies in a surprising and ingenious way that suddenly affirms her character as someone with whom we can connect; it is a brilliant culmination of a gradual journey to understanding through empathetic writing and a firm narrative.

This is a strong and interesting novel with vibrant characters and an enticing plot that twists and turns. It is well-worth diving in and pushing through the somewhat detached opening, as the narrative pulls you in and captivates you, much like the cult does with its followers, and the outside world does with Whit.

Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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