Whit by Iain Banks

Sally Ann Melia

Sally Ann Melia, SF&F
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S A Melia is an English SF&F writer based in Surre
I have read all of Iain Banks novels and I read Whit first of all when it was first published in 1986. I re-read it over the weekend to write this review.

Whit is a very whimsical story, and is a great escape. It is set in the lowlands of Scotland, this time close to Sterling where in an old mansion house, a christian sect led by Salvador Whit live out a peaceful communal idyll.

The story is about Isis Whit who is Salvador's granddaughter, who is set a mission to track down her cousin Morag who left the community a few years before to pursue a career in London as a concert musician. I don't want to say much about the story, but just to say it starts as a road movie with Isis trying to make her way to London without using any conventional means of transport and in compliance with the arcane rules of her cult's faith.

The second half becomes a bit scary as the cult turns against Isis, ultimately the mystery of Morag is resolved and the story works its way to a satisfactory ending.

This is a laugh-out-loud, feel-good book. It includes surprise revelations, wacky millionaire aunts and some truly amazing mixed influence cooking: bridie samosa, channa neeps, black pudding bhaji and saag crowdie paneer.

Recommended.
 

Vertigo

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My Take:


In Banks’ words: “[Whit is] a book about religion and culture written by a dedicated evangelical atheist — I thought I was very kind to them... Essentially, Isis makes the recognition that the value of the Luskentyrian cult is in their community values rather than their religious ones. She recognises that efficiency isn't everything, that people not profit are what matters.” And it’s true, he is kind to them, although mostly, I feel, because, as he says himself, the emphasis is on the community values rather than the religious one. Banks has invented a small fictitious religious sect (or cult) founded in the real, but remote, community of Luskentyre, in the Outer Hebrides that later moved to a farm near Sterling donated to them by a member. Like a cross between the Amish and a kibbutz, the Luskentyrians avoid as much modern technology as is practical, living a simple, pastoral and communal life. The book consists of two threads; one following the origins of the sect and the other following Isis, the scion of the founder, as she endeavours to avert a crisis facing the sect and in so doing must face both the outside technological world she has been sheltered from and the more sordid hidden realities of her community.

Banks has great fun in the bildungsroman parts, exposing the naïve Isis to the darker side of mid-nineties society filled with punks, hippies and the sex industry. Banks was always fond of finding obscure roads (GWRs – Great Wee Roads) on which to play in his cars and here he also has fun making a religious fetish out of getting places by obscure means: “Merit and calmness are to be found in the out-of-the-way, the byways of life; in the unnoticed, in the hidden and ignored, in the interstices; amongst the gaps between the slabs in the pavement of life (this is called the Principle of Indirectness, or the Principle of Interstitiality). Therefore there is goodness and the potential for enlightenment in doing things differently, seemingly just for the sake of it.” Here again Banks has much fun as wastes no opportunity for his trademark humour and some of Isis’ travel techniques had me laughing out loud. But there is a serious side to this; by taking an outsiders view of modern life he sheds a highly critical light on it. There’s nothing new about this, many authors have done such before, but Banks manages it particularly well here without dropping into rant mode as is sometimes his wont when getting on his Socialism soap box. Here there is mostly only gentle parodying humour.

Whit is an easier read than many of Banks’ non-science fiction works but is no less significant for being so. He could so easily, given his self-confessed evangelical atheism, have made this a bitter book but instead he handles the religious aspects gently, emphasising the beneficial community values of his fictitious sect and its vulnerability to the all too human greed it is faced with.

An excellent book that was a pleasure to read.

5/5 stars.
 

Dave

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I had this on audio tape read by Peter Capaldi and I used to listen to it regularly on long journeys until I got a car with a CD player instead. I need to buy the book and revisit it. My favourite thing was the recipes - curried haggis comes to mind.
 

Vertigo

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I had this on audio tape read by Peter Capaldi and I used to listen to it regularly on long journeys until I got a car with a CD player instead. I need to buy the book and revisit it. My favourite thing was the recipes - curried haggis comes to mind.
Yes he did have a lot of fun with the recipes. I wonder if he ever produced real recipes for any of them...
 

picklematrix

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Love this book. First of Banks's I ever read, from the school library. He can make more or less any intriguing idea into a great novel.
 

dannymcg

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This seems very familiar, I must have read it a long time ago.

To confirm, was this the one where she wasn't meant to sit in comfort so she carried a short plank around to put on train and car seats?

Or have I got confused with some other story?
 

Onyx

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I bought every new book of Banks' as they came out, and this is a reminder to reread Whit. Thank you.
 

Vertigo

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This seems very familiar, I must have read it a long time ago.

To confirm, was this the one where she wasn't meant to sit in comfort so she carried a short plank around to put on train and car seats?

Or have I got confused with some other story?
Yes correct. Though I think it wasn't so much not sitting in comfort per se but rather travelling in comfort. And they were always supposed to travel by the most unorthodox means possible, which allowed Banks to have huge fun with her various travel arrangements.

Banks' non-SF is almost always brilliant but not always easy reading; I think this is one of his most fun, easy-reading books.
 
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