The book's central character is Isis Whit, commonly called Is - though more formally known as Blessed or Beloved Isis. Isis is a Luskentyrian, a member of a religious sect founded by her grandfather, Salvador. Like him, she is very important to the faithful - she holds the position 'Elect of God' and is a future leader of the Luskentyrians. Home is High Easter Offerance - located in Scotland, on the banks of the River Forth. The book opens in May 1995, when Isis is nineteen years old and with the Festival of Love approaching. The Luskentyrians consider people born on the 29th of February very special - the Blessed Isis herself was born on that date. As a result, a Festival of Love is held every four years - at the end of May in the year preceding a Leap Year. As the end of May is nine months before the end of February and it is a Festival of Love, I'm sure you can figure out what happens at it...
Isis' cousin, Morag - while not strictly considered a missionary - has been living in London for six years. Based on her letters, it appears she has become a successful musician - an internationally renowned baryton soloist, no less. She had been due to return to High Easter Offerance for the festival, where she would have been the Guest of Honour. However, her most recent letter to the community includes the news that she has turned her back on her faith and will not be returning. One possible option was for Isis to take Morag's place as guest of Honour - something she wasn't entirely keen on. Instead, Isis is sent to London to try and rescue her cousin - the book tells the story of her journey and return.
This is only the second book by Banks I've read, the first being "The Crow Road". Like it, I found "Whit" to be very enjoyable. It's told entirely from Isis' point of view - she describes her journey, outlines her discoveries, explains her beliefs and tells the history of her sect. Luskentyrians avoid modern technology as far as possible - nothing at High Easter Offerance runs on electricity, for example. It's amusing, at times, to see her reaction to life in the 'modern' world. There are several very strong supporting characters - Yolanda, Isis' very colourful and hugely entertaining Texan grandmother, particularly stands out. The only disappointment is that some of them didn't make a bigger appearance. Highly recommended !
For me this is easily one of Banks' best books. It's the only one of his that you might seriously contemplate lending to your grandmother and is much more accessible to the Banks newcomer than much of his work. The mystery element which pervades the story is fascinating, making this an un-put-downable read. And there are enough searching questions about life, God and the world we live in to make this much more than just another mystery story. The quirks of Banks' writing style and the weirdness of his characters come across in the most engaging way. 450 pages will pass like they're 100.
But it is at the higher levels where you find the true value of this book, because it forces open even closed minds on the trickiest of subjects, introducing it as it does in a dismarming, balanced, entertaining and unprejudiced way, lightly tugging at one's conscience and provoking a very considered personal response.
Cleverly done, as one would perhaps expect, but nonetheless both entertaining and rewarding throughout, and well worth the read.