>> Wednesday, February 04, 2015
A monumental, genre-defying novel that David Mitchell calls "Michel Faber’s second masterpiece," The Book of Strange New Things is a masterwork from a writer in full command of his many talents.
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.
Marked by the same bravura storytelling and precise language that made The Crimson Petal and the White such an international success, The Book of Strange New Things is extraordinary, mesmerizing, and replete with emotional complexity and genuine pathos.
I haven't read Faber before, but the premise of this book really intrigued me. We meet Peter and his wife Bea on their way to Heathrow, where Peter is about to start a journey which will take him unfathomably far from home. His final destination is Oasis, a planet several galaxies away, where he is to become a Christian missionary. We follow him throughout his journey, as he explores his new environment and works with the native Oasans. They are the reason he is there, as they are hungry for him to share the stories in his Bible, the book of strange new things of the title.
But as he takes forward his mission, Peter is in contact with Bea, and things aren't going as well on Earth. Through her written messages, we find out that environmental catastrophe is making things on Earth increasingly desperate. And that distance in their experiences, more than the physical distance between them, tests what was a solid, loving relationship.
I'm not usually attracted to books that deal with themes of faith or troubled marriages, but the space exploration and colonisation aspect intrigued me. And, it turns out, I ended up enjoying all these aspects of the story.
I found myself fascinated by the world Faber created and by the characters. Objectively, this was a bit slow at the start. It takes Peter about 4 hours (as in, 4 audiobook hours, much longer to him) to even get out of the main base in Oasis, but I really didn't mind. It's all so interesting and different that I was absorbed by it. The world is strange and compelling, and the contrast to the mundane reality of living in the base, run by a mysterious corporation, really worked.
Peter is a really interesting character. His most prominent characteristic is his goodness. It's very important to him to be a good, decent person who treats others respectfully. His interactions with the native inhabitants of Oasis are a good example. I was a quite leery at the beginning (the very idea of missionaries is fraught with all sorts of negative associations for me), but Peter is very careful to respect the Oasans' culture (I use the term 'Oasans' here, but Peter calls them by the name they use for themselves, which is rendered in the book in symbols the audiobook narrator pronounces something like 'Shishoda'). His approach to missionary work is not to try to 'civilise' or change their culture in any way, but to share the joy of the religion that gives him such a sense of meaning with people who are explicitly demanding he do so (in fact, getting someone to teach them about the 'book of strange new things' was one of the the conditions the Oasans demanded before they would agree to help the people on the base survive).
But Peter is good in a believable way, which -I'll be honest- made him feel incredibly annoying at times. And that's what Faber was going for, I'm pretty sure, because clearly he exasperates Bea at times, too. His serene goodness and self-satisfaction when Bea's world is falling apart is more than she can bear. He's especially infuriating when he really can't grasp what Bea is going through and is clearly more concerned that she, say, uses the word 'godforsaken' than the fact that the world around her is falling apart and she feels forsaken by her God. He shows an almost psychopathic lack of empathy... or rather, it's more a difficulty taking in problems that are not right next to him. I totally identified and sympathised with Bea's anger with him.
In fact, even though we are always in Peter's POV and in Oasis, I was mentally and emotionally with Bea. With her, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at his lack of response and empathy, and at how he could remain so detached from what Bea was saying. Because I was getting only Bea's letters as well, and with me, she's just a character in a book, whereas with Peter she's real and his wife, and I was getting a lot more emotionally upset than him about what she was going through! There's an episode close to the end (basically, what leads to the final breakdown of her faith in God), where I wept at what had happened to her. It's something that's minor, on the grand scheme of things, but I could feel her heartbreak and completely identified with it. And Peter goes around blithely feeling more worried about the state of her faith than the state of her life. Faber made me really feel in this book.
The exception was Peter's big crisis of faith. I could intellectually understand his faith and his utter certainty that losing it would be the worst possible thing that could happen to him, but I couldn't really feel the anguish of this. I'm agnostic and have absolutely no interest in being part of any religion, even from a 'tradition' point of view. And I lead a life that makes me happy and is full of meaning. I just can't understand emotionally the way losing your faith can feel like a tragedy (although I'm perfectly willing to believe the lived experience that says that for many people, it is). So that aspect didn't resonate with me very much.
Still, speaking of faith, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Peter's gnawing suspicion that what the Oasans are getting from his teachings about Christianity is not quite what he intended or expected. I won't reveal much here, because one of the most intriguing things about the book is trying to figure out what's going on with the Oasans, why the fascination with Christianity and what they're interpreting. I really came to care for them. Faber creates people who are almost unbearably vulnerable and made me feel tenderness and fear for them.
It's not a perfect book, especially from the plot mechanics point of view. And strictly speaking, there are some issues with the logic. It somewhat strained my credibility that Peter would go so far, in a journey on which he is fully and completely dependent on the goodwill of the mysterious corporation who runs the trading post in Oasis, without asking certain questions. But that seems to be who he is, his faith that God will take care of things makes it credible. That just seems to be how he rolls. But still, it was a book that made me think and feel, the sort of book I really, really want to discuss with people. So please, someone read this!
MY GRADE: A B+.
AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The narrator, Josh Cohen is really good. This must have been a challenging book, mainly due to the Oasan characters. Some of them speak English (the base has been going for a while, and a couple of people before Peter spent quite a bit of time with them), but there are sounds their physiology really struggles with, and Cohen comes up with a credible way to pronounce those sounds (the 't', the 's'). I wondered whether he was making it up, but I've had a look online and Faber actually substitutes those letters with strange symbols in the Oasans' speech, which would have probably worked just as well as Cohen's narration.