Wednesday, October 20, 2010

48. Whit by Iain Banks

The only other Iain Banks book I have read is The Wasp Factory and I liked it okay, but didn't love it. That was before I discovered the genius of Iain M. Banks, most of whose Culture novels I've read (though I am fast falling behind having not read his last two). It turned out that several of my international colleagues had quite good taste in books and several of them recommended Whit as one of the better Iain Banks books. I happened to find it at a used bookstore in Amsterdam (though I doubt this book is hard to find).

It's the story of a young girl, Isis (and a whole bunch of middle and surnames finally ending in Whit) who is a member of a peculiar but pretty happy-seeming sect in Scotland. They are kind of like the Amish, because they are forbidden to use technology, but they are also pretty mellow about sex and licentious behaviour. The heroine is actually a very important figure in the sect, as she, being born on a leap year and having the ability to heal is the next in line to be the leader when her grandfather, who is also the founder, dies.

The catalyst for the plot is that Isis's cousin, who is a successful concert performer sends a letter saying she is leaving the sect and won't return to perform for an important upcoming festival. Isis is sent out to London to find her and to try and bring her back. The first half of the book follows Isis, who is very capable and self-assured, but also utterly inexperienced with the modern world (naive is the word that comes to mind, but it wouldn't be right because she is well aware of the potential dangers and evils out there), on her journey. That story is interspersed with Isis slowly revealing how her sect works and its history.

As she gets closer to her cousin, she starts to learn strange things and the second half of the book follows her as she looks more closely at her sect and starts to unravel the truth behind its background and also strange things that have been going on there under her nose all this time. I'm being very vague because I really don't want to give anything away. It's a very engaging and fun book and you get caught up in both parts. In the first, it is just a great adventure of a headstrong fish-out-of-water character in modern Great Britain and she gets caught up in several quite fun situations and handles them in a very entertaining way. In the second part, you really want to know what is going on and you very much sympathize with Isis. It was a hard book to put down and I cranked through its 400+ pages in 3 days, even prioritizing work errands that I knew would have me waiting so I could finish it.

I'm not sure if Banks is saying anything too deep here. It's just a fun ride. The first half reminded me of Isabelle Allende, where adventure is found in the story of a normal but peculiar person in the normal world.

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