Monday, 3 November 2014

Book Review | The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter. 

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.


Michel Faber's first novel since The Fire Gospel—a sterling send-up of The Da Vinci Code and its ilk—is a characteristically compelling exploration of faith which takes place "in a foreign solar system, trillions of miles from home," (p.47) on a wasteland planet populated by hooded beings with foetuses for faces.

So far, so science fiction. Factor in first contact, a spot of space travel, and an awful lot of apocalypse, and The Book of Strange New Things seems damn near destined to be speculative. Unfortunately for fans of the form, as the author warns early on, "there was nothing here to do justice to [that] fact." (p.47) Or, if not nothing, then very little aside the superficial.

Even in addition to the aforementioned trappings, honeydewed drinking water and a dizzying day/night cycle do not add up to much more than an unlikely lens through which to look at love: in the first between mere mortals, but above and beyond that, the love—and the love lost—between man and maker.

The Book of Strange New Things is beautiful, albeit brutal. Despairing to a degree, but also bullish about the future. Hope, however, is a fragile thing, as Faber's protagonist preaches at a point:
As fragile as a flower. Its fragility makes it easy to sneer at, by people who see life as a dark and difficult ordeal, people who get angry when something they can't believe in themselves gives comfort to others. They prefer to crush the flower underfoot, as if to say: See how weak this thing is, see how easily it can be destroyed. But, in truth, hope is one of the strongest things in the universe. Empires fall, civilisations vanish into dust, but hope always comes back, pushing up through the ashes, growing from seeds that are invisible and invincible. (p.315)
Indeed, Peter Leigh means to be one of these seeds; to share his hope—the faith that saved him from a life of drug abuse and destitution—with the natives of Oasis. He still struggles to believe the Powers That Be at USIC picked him of all people—him but not his wonderful wife Bea, who did deliver Peter from his dark past—to be an apostle upon another planet; to spread the Good News about God to the "indigenous inhabitants" (p.71) of this unknowable new world.

Rather reasonably, Peter expects an uphill struggle, though he hopes, in his heart of hearts, that the way forward will reveal itself when the time is right. Here, too, his optimism wins out:
This was not Gethsemane: he wasn't headed for Golgotha, he was embarking on a great adventure. He'd been chosen out of thousands, to pursue the most important missionary calling since the Apostles had ventured forth to conquer Rome with the power of love, and he was going to do his best. (p.20)
Peter's best efforts are wasted at the base where his holy mission begins. "There was something weird about the USIC personnel, something Bea could have helped him articulate," (p.146) but Bea is many hundreds of millions of miles away, following her own calling as best she can in a world which gives every indication of ending imminently.

Practically miraculously, she and Peter can keep in touch thanks to something called the Shoot, but their intergalactic emails become increasingly strained as their circumstances change: as planet Earth is plagued by visitations of violence and tragedy on a truly terrible scale, Bea has to batten down the hatches, meanwhile Peter moves in with the Oasans who—thanks to his mysteriously disappeared predecessor's efforts—already know about the Bible. They call it The Book of Strange New Things, and among them, there are those hungry for its spiritual sustenance:
Determined to do more than just preach to the converted, Peter strove to get to know these strangers, noting the nuances of their gestures, the way they related to each other, the roles they seemed to play in the community. Which, in a community as agalitarian as the Oasans', was not easy. There were days when he felt that the best he'd ever achieve with them was a sort of animal tolerance: the kind of relationship that an occasional visitor develops with a cat which, after a while, no longer hisses and hides. (p.322)
At precisely the same time, things go from bad to worse for Bea:
The world had always been crowded with mishaps and disasters, just as it had also been graced with fine achievements and beautiful endeavours which the media tended to ignore—if only because honour and contentment were hard to capture on film. But, even allowing for all that, Peter felt that the dispatches he was getting from Beatrice were alarmingly crammed with bad news. More bad news than he knew what to do with. There was only so much calamitous change you could hear about, events that re-wrote what you thought was general knowledge, before your brain stopped digesting and you clung on to older realities. He accepted that Mirah had gone back to her husband and than an American politician's wife had been shot dead in her swimming pool. [...] But when he thought of North Korea, he pictured a calm cityscape of totalitarian architecture, with legions of bicycle-riding citizens going about their normal business. There was no room in the picture for a catastrophic cyclone. (pp.260-261)
At bottom, The Book of Strange New Things is about this breakdown in communication and the crisis of faith that follows, like a long night after a stretch of bright sunlight. Quite in spite of appearances indicating otherwise, Faber's first in what feels like forever is not a book about the Oasans or the strange fate of their previous preacher, nor USIC's ulterior motives or even the end of the world as we know it. Instead, The Book of Strange New Things is interested in intimacy—between husband and wife as well as creator and created—and the dangers of distance, especially as regards language as an inadequate stand-in.

What Faber has to say about the subject is exceptional, certainly; he explores it softly, skilfully, respectfully, and with great restraint. The novel's narrative, in the interim, is never less than compelling; the characters we encounter over its course—from the struggling couple at its core to the subdued Jesus Lovers and USIC employees Peter meets—are convincing, complex and, by the end, deftly developed; meanwhile, miserable as it is, the utilitarian aesthetic of Oasis sets Faber's fictional planet smartly apart.

Make no mistake: The Book of Strange New Things is most of a masterpiece, but I was, if I'm honest, disappointed by bits of it. First and foremost, it's slow, if not not excruciatingly so; a little action in advance of the packed last act would have livened it up a lot. It's also overlong—and I can't help but think the book would have been better served if Faber had engaged in some way with the speculative elements of its premise rather than rinsing and repeating certain sequences. Relatedly, there are a load of loose ends, and plot holes aplenty that the science fiction faithful are sure to struggle with.

That said, there's no doubt in my mind that The Book of Strange New Things will be remembered decades hence, for its few failings are far outweighed by the heft of its many successes. This is an important novel, caringly composed, fittingly uplifting and eventually affecting. Describing it as Black Robe meets Red Mars doesn't quite cut it as a conclusion, so I'm going to leave the last word to the otherworldly apostle Peter:

Just as the atmosphere penetrated his clothes and seemed to pass through his skin, something unfamiliar was permeating his head, soaking into his mind. It wasn't in the least sinister. It was as benign as benign could be. [...] Not all of it was enjoyable, though. (p.297)

The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber

UK Publication: October 2014, Canongate
US Publication: October 2014, Hogarth

Buy this book from /
The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading

No comments:

Post a Comment