Whit, Iain Banks' latest mainstream novel, is told in the voice of Isis
Whit, a young but important member of a small, quirky cult in Scotland.
Like all of Banks' characters, from Frank Cauldhame in The Wasp Factory
to Prentice McHoan in The Crow Road, she's a character in a
half-unconscious search for knowledge which will inevitably turn her world
Isis, otherwise The Blessed Very Reverend Gaia-Marie Isis Saraswati Minerva
Mirza Whit of Luskentyre, Beloved Elect of God III, is granddaughter and
spiritual heir of Salvador Whit, patriarch of the Luskentyrians.
The head of the cult must be someone born on February 29. In order to make
this more likely a Festival of Love is always held nine months in advance
of the date. But Isis' beautiful cousin Morag, the planned guest of honor,
has gone missing, and Isis is sent on a holy mission through the
incomprehensible world of southern England to find her.
Luskentyrians live in a low-tech commune and reject most technology, even
at great inconvenience to themselves. They also run their lives according
to a makeshift collection of beliefs and obsessive little rituals which
Isis begins by describing with naive earnestness. The heart of the novel
intercuts Isis' voyage through southern England, dealing with rastas,
policemen, racist skinheads and other dubious characters of a sort she has
never encountered, with her recitation of the official history of the cult
and the rationale behind its rules.
Banks has two notable strengths as a writer: an ability to speak
confidently in the voice of his main character and a penchant for the
piling-on of details. He calls on both of these in Whit and does it so
deftly that you're carried along in spite of the slackness of the story.
What should've been a harrowing tale of worldly perils turns into a
rambling, episodic mess with no suspense. The counterpoint between Isis'
physical adventure through England and her emotional adventure as she
begins to piece together the real history of Salvador Whit and the true
origins of her cult feels arbitrary and choppy rather than like an
inevitable convergence of knowledge and fate.
Nonetheless, the confidence of Isis' storytelling and the fascination of
the details of the cult's origins maintains interest in how the tale will
work itself out. Banks also adds some fun with other character voices with
Isis' semi-articulate half-brother Zebediah, who only speaks in sentence
fragments, and with her Texan grandmother Yolanda, who is entirely
convincing and never makes a dialect error that I could detect.
The story falls into two parts chronologically: Isis' quest, and her return
and decision what to do with the knowledge she has gained about the
discreditable origins of the Luskentyrians. Here again Banks slips from his
customary skill. For example, after Isis pursues Morag fruitlessly for
weeks, piqued by cryptic messages that her cousin doesn't want to see her
and wishes she'd stay away, Morag turns out to be an empty, vapid character
passively willing to aid Isis' cause. Isis also encounters other ex-cult
members, none of whom pose any sort of danger or create any obstacle, all
of whom knowingly or unknowingly provide her with further data that might
allow her to discredit her grandfather and possibly dismantle the cult.
Banks conjures up a little tension over Isis' reception by her fellow
cult-members and her eventual resolution of the power struggle between her,
her brother and her grandfather for control of the cult -- but it's too
little, too late. He loses us via the aimless storytelling and also via the
essential coldness of Isis' character. He clues us into that early -- "My
name is Isis. I am usually called Is" -- and he keeps her very consistent,
but she turns out to be one of the least interesting of his main characters
by the end.
Lame admission though it may be, Whit makes me hope Banks' next book will
be another big sprawling Culture space opera.