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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Review: Whit

Whitis Iain Bank's novel about religions and cults. Like all novels he wrote that do not use the "M" middle initial, this novel is not science fiction. The narrator and protagonist of the story is Isis Whit, the Elect of God from a small cult in England. She is the elect because she was born on February 29th, which makes her something special. In addition, she has a supernatural gift: the ability to heal.

When an important member of her community sends a message indicating that she has decided to breakaway, Isis is sent on a misson to find her, talk to her, and try to bring her back into the fold. The story then becomes that of a committed and religious innocent coming into the big city of London for the first time in her life.

As you might expect from such a setup, there are many comic moments. In particular, Isis is very proud of her religion, and very committed to it, and seemingly blind to all the hints and messages sent to her by the other members of the community and lapsed members of her community that she encounters. She is single-minded in her pursuit of her quarry, and completely unfazed, even when she discovers that her cousin Morag has not been what she claimed to be all along.

When she finally gets close to tracking her down, the novel suddenly takes a serious turn, and Isis is derailed both by family members as well as a strange sequence of events that indicate that the nature of her mission was not what it appears: someone within the cult has a sinister plot to remove her as Elect of God. Isis proceeds to defend herself and investigate the history and origins of the cult.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the plot hence would degenerate quickly into farce, but Iain Banks manages to keep it funny, poignant, and very realistic. My sympathy for Isis was aroused and when she does come into her own I found myself applauding for her, even though I am not normally sympathetic to religions and their members.

All in all, a quick light read with many funny moments. It doesn't try to explore deep issues about religions and cults, but does portray religious cults somewhat sympathetically, while at the same time acknowledging that the roots of and forces behind such cults are usually very suspect. Recommended as a light airplane novel.

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