The Book of Strange New Things
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The Leaves are Falling: A novel
Ignatius Press £14.99
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MICHEL FABER's new novel is set partly on an alien planet,
partly on this earth, at some unspecified future date. Peter is a
pastor of an Evangelical church, who is appointed by a faceless
corporation, USIC, to go to the planet Oasis, where the natives
want a pastor. His wife, Bea, meanwhile, cannot accompany him, but
they can communicate by something akin to email. Thus the novel
sets up two parallel worlds, as life on Oasis unfolds in
juxtaposition to life on Earth.
Oasis is a strange place - strangely normal, that is. The humans
are all handpicked, and unsettling in that they seem to live
dispassionate lives. The Oasans, as Peter calls them, remind one of
creatures from Star Wars (the films are referenced at
least once), and the geography of their planet, with its warm, wet
atmosphere, is reminiscent of a short story by Ray Bradbury, if my
memory does not deceive.
One fears that one is in some sort of dystopia, and that here is
going to be some dreadful revelation; but no such revelation comes.
There is nothing nasty in this woodshed, only a slow, very slow
realisation that things are falling apart.
Back on Earth, things are going wrong - with the weather, and
with the economy. On Oasis, Peter feels his faith begin to fray at
the edges, and his inner calm begin to splinter. His past, and that
of his wife, begin to haunt him. As for the Oasans, they have no
past at all, no way of expressing what has gone before; but it
eventually becomes apparent that their hunger for the gospel is
based on a terrible fear.
The Book of Strange New Things - which is the name the
Oasans give to the Bible - is a very long book, at nearly 600
pages, and this underlines the skill with which it is written. The
pages turn swiftly; but this is no cheap thriller. The final
message is subtle.
The fiction does, as always, require suspension of disbelief: no
Church, even an independent one, would send a solitary missionary
on such a journey without adequate supervision and support. Again,
no missionary would build a church as his first task.
One wonders whether Bea and Peter are telling us anything about
the Church, let alone faith. Is the message in the end a simpler
one about the fragility of human relationships and human life
LUCY BECKETT's new book is subtitled "a novel", but it is
something more than that - a novel of ideas. It deals with Kresy,
the borderland between Lithuania and Poland, the Russian and German
empires, and the city of Vilna in particular. Before the Second
World War, Vilnius, as we now call it, was a Polish and Jewish
city. It is now the capital of Lithuania, having been purged by
German and Russian interventions.
Our hero, Josef Halpern, is born in the old Vilna, but he
outlives his birthplace. That he lives at all is remarkable, given
the way in which Russian Communists and German Nazis deal with the
rest of his family. We meet him as a refugee in England, working as
a farm boy.
His dramatic story of survival is told in a few flashbacks, but
the main focus of interest is on the terrible injustices done to
the inhabitants of Vilna, revealed through a series of
conversations with his English employer, and various people that
Joe meets in passing. And emblematic of all the injustice and
cruelty is the massacre at Katyn - blamed on the Nazis, but really
the work, Joe knows, as we all do now, of Stalin, whose guilt is
denied by Stalin's British allies.
Joe is Jewish, but, given his lost family and childhood, not
religious. Neither was his father. Beckett is wise enough not to
suggest a return to religious tradition as the cure for the ills of
Europe, but it is, of course, the implicit message of the book.
Indeed, the book emphasises the irreducible nature of the
individual, and the wickedness of trying to blot out the individual
experience. Joe's story, in the end, is the reason that ideologies,
particularly dialectical materialism, are so wrong. Immanuel Kant
would have applauded, and so would St John Paul II.
Joe is a character endowed with great sympathy and dignity; his
story is a moving one, and this novel of ideas is a beautifully
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative
Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).