Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber
ISBN 9781782114079, 592pages, Oct 2014, Paperback, $29.99
I hesitate to review The Book of Strange New Things. For one thing, I came to the book with no preconceptions. I had no idea what the plot was about other than the very nondescript wording on the back which indicated that the book was about a missionary who goes some distance to preach the word of Jesus to natives. When I realised what Faber was doing with his plot, I was delighted and surprised. This surprise continued throughout the book and added to my pleasure as a reader. So stop reading this review now, and read no other reviews. Just go and read The Book of Strange New Things. You’ll love it. Trust me on that without the need for substantiation. You could, like I did, judge the book solely by its elegant cream and gold cover, the author’s growing and well-deserved reputation, and just plunge in without preamble.
That said, I feel the book deserves a review, and I want to explore it a bit more in depth, so I’m going to review it anyway. The Book of Strange New Things is a genre-buster that defies classification: sci fi, romance, literary fiction, dystopia, whatever you want to call it, The Book of Strange New Things is a moving and engaging read. I don’t quite want to let it go.
The protagonist of the book is Peter Leigh, an enthusiastic minister who is sent by a company called USIC to another planet, named Oasis after a young girl who entered the name into a competition. I initially assumed USIC was a large ministry like the Seventh Day Adventist Church, though I later changed my mind about this as they appeared to be a somewhat sinister and more secularly capitalistic multinational. Peter has been selected for his mission after a long series of interviews, but he has to leave his wife Bea behind to do so, and the painful rift between Peter and Be a grows as Peter tries to share his experiences on Oasis through a form of email (“the shoot”) that allows for no images. As Peter and Bea’s communication transforms, and their experiences begin to differ dramatically, Peter finds himself struggling with his own faith, his sense of self, and his feelings towards his wife and the human race in general, which appears to be careening towards its end on Earth in Peter’s absence.
From a plot point of view, the book’s restraint is masterful. I was left hungry for more. I wanted to read more about the aliens, with their strange sibilant language that we can almost hear, written in its own font in the book, fetus-like faces, and tender, small bodies that smelled of fruit. We just get hints of their simple agrarian existence, which starts to grow on Peter as he begins to sense that living this way isn’t necessarily backwards. Of Oasis, I wanted more of its unusual dancing rain showers, the whiteflower that could be made to taste like almost any kind of Earthly food, the desolate landscape, and its strange atmosphere of nearly alive breathable air which moves sensually, under the clothes:
It was enjoyable, this sudden all-out luxury of atmosphere, but also an assault: the way the air immediately ran up the sleeves of his shirt, licked his eyelids and ears, dampened his chest. (109)
There are all sorts of intriguing plot points that aren’t resolved. We never learn who USIC is, beyond rumours and gossip, though they begin to appear more and more sinister as the book progresses. We never find out why the Oasans moved, what happened to the previous minister Kurzberg, or the real backstory behind Peter’s attractive colleague Granger, who has scars on her wrist. Bea’s rapid transformation, and the situation on Earth, is as confusing to the reader as it is to Peter. But the lack of information is no impediment in this novel, where the reader’s hunger for more plot is fully satisfied by the very human sense of longing and confusion that Peter feels as he moves sensitively between the delicacy of the Oasians, learning their language slowly and getting to know their nuances, and the pain that his wife is going through back home as the world begins to careen towards a disaster that is all-too-possible. At no point in this beautifully written novel did I ever doubt it’s veracity. Peter’s arc is what drives the story, and he grows through the tale as he struggles to do the right thing while remaining somewhat sane in the face of chaos, loss, and meaninglessness in the face of what had been almost absolute faith. The story remains about Peter, and is consistently moving, tender, sad and beautiful throughout the novel, as Peter comes across the his own strange new things – as much in himself as in others, uncovering beauty and ugliness in places least expected.
There are no answers in The Book of Strange New Things. Certainly the Bible doesn’t provide them, nor does USIC, the Oasans (I feel almost prejudiced calling them that, though my keyboard won’t type out their proper name), Bea, or anyone. It’s entirely possible that if and when Peter returns to the “baad place,” he will find no one and nothing. As Jesus Lover Five, Peter’s favourite Oasan, says, “You are…man. Only man.” There is something permanently beautiful in this frailty; in the attempt to do right; in the love Peter experiences both for his wife in spite of her transformation and for the Oasans, and in the shared song between an Oasan who “wishes to live” and a human who wants to help. The Book of Strange New Things is like no other book I’ve read. It’s exquisite, sad, uplifting and doomed all at the same time. I wish that the ending was different, and know, somehow, that nothing else that would do. This is a book that will remain with me, working its way under my skin like the Oasan atmosphere.