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Worlds and continents

28 November 2014

Alexander Lucie- Smith considers two novelists' messages


New things: the hand-coloured second edition (c.1780) of Selectarum stirpium Americanorum historia by Nikolaus Joseph Jacquin, the first Linnæan botanist to explore the New World; from Flora Illustrata: Great works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, edited by Susan M. Fraser and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers (Yale, £35 (£31.50); 978-0-300-19662-7). Another botanical book, page XX

New things: the hand-coloured second edition (c.1780) of Selectarum stirpium Americanorum historia by Nikolaus Joseph Jacquin, the first Linnæan bot...

The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber
Canongate £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT292 )

The Leaves are Falling: A novel
Lucy Beckett
Ignatius Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT292 )

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 itself?

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 rendered tale.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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