BEATRICE LEIGH — nurse, Evangelical Christian, and cat owner — lives in more or less contemporary Britain. But society is breaking down: previously unshakeable institutions are collapsing around her. Ecological disaster beckons. She is struggling to hold it together, all the more so because her beloved husband, Peter, is away from home.
A long, long way from home, it turns out: he is millions of miles away, on a planet called Oasis. He has travelled there in answer to a call from God to convert the alien inhabitants to Christianity. For the duration, they can communicate only by a not-always-reliable form of intergalactic email.
While Bea is weighed down by life on earth, Peter is caught up in his new life. Although heartbroken at leaving his wife, he finds it increasingly difficult to give his attention to anything other than Oasis and its inhabitants. There are some humans — all working for the shadowy corporation USIC — but many more indigenous Oasan aliens.
Native Oasans are hideous: each resembles “a placenta with two foetuses — maybe three-month-old twins, hairless and blind — nestled head to head, knee to knee”. They wear gloves, and hooded pastel-coloured robes made of a fabric “disconcertingly like bathtowel”. When they try to pronounce an “s”, they make the noise of “a ripe fruit being thumbed into two halves”. Their voices are akin to “a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete”.
The atmosphere in Oasis is full of “the sound of agitated leaves”, although there are few leaves to be seen. The rain tastes sweet. A working relationship with the USIC incomers has been established. The Oasans produce food for the human settlement in return for painkillers and the Bible, which they call the “book of strange new things”.
Peter finds that he had a predecessor: a pastor, Kurtzberg, who is mysteriously absent. Kurtzberg has taught the Oasans English; but, yet to understand the Gospels, Peter still has to excise consonant sounds that they have difficulty pronouncing, and remove references that have no resonance in their lives. (The prevalence of sheep causes particular problems.)
This novel is as extraordinary as any other work by Michel Faber. His other books include The Crimson Petal and the White, about the life of a Victorian prostitute, adapted by the BBC; and the eerie Under the Skin, made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson. It is a book about what it is to be human, and is remarkable at several levels.
First and foremost, the extra-terrestrial world that Faber creates is utterly believable. And perhaps most remarkable is the convincing portrayal of a Christian missionary drawn by a non-believer. Faber grew up a Baptist, in Melbourne, but roundly rejected his parents’ belief as a child. Yet Peter’s faith — along with his struggles, and his doubts and confusion — is authentic, and presented without mockery.
The spiritual questions posed are valid and profound. What does it mean to mix colonisation with proselytisation in the (almost) 21st century? Are the Oasans as simple and sweet as they seem? What exactly do they understand? With their highly literal interpretation of language, have they really embraced the promise of eternal life? How much does it matter that the Bible has to be so edited for them?
Anxiety pervades the novel. The whole book is tinged with sadness as the certainties of life on earth fade away, while Peter is too charmed by his new life to notice what is happening. The intimacy that he treasures in his marriage begins to falter as he and Bea move beyond each other’s comprehension.
Part of the air of tragedy infusing the novel is, no doubt, informed by the author’s own loss. Eva, his partner and muse of 26 years, was dying of incurable multiple myeloma as he wrote this book. (He has since published Undying: A love story, poetry in her memory.)
Faber is Dutch-born, but grew up in Australia; he and Eva moved to a remote part of Scotland 25 years ago on the basis of a photo. Apparently, she fell in love with the view, and moved half her family — including an ex-husband — to the Highlands as a result. It was only then, with her encouragement, that Faber began writing. Previously, he had worked as a casual cleaner and a nurse. His success in a short-story competition led to an approach by Canongate, who have published all his books.
If you are someone who loathes the very idea of science fiction, do not be put off, I implore you: The Book of Strange New Things is a truly compelling novel with huge religious, ecological, political, and philosophical themes. The narrative is hypnotic — think Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — and the use of language is stupendous. If ever there was a book of strange new things, this is it.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber is published by Canongate at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-78211-408-6).
THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS — SOME QUESTIONS
- What are the “strange new things” in The Book of Strange New Things?
- Peter goes on an immense journey while knowing very little about USIC’s project. Why do you think this is?
- What effect does distance have on the way in which Peter thinks about things happening on earth?
- “Peter laughed. ‘He can’t love Jesus,’ he said. ‘He’s a cat.’” What is the place of animals, and particularly Joshua, in the novel?
- What kinds of communication difficulties are shown in the novel?
- Why is Peter so keen, throughout, to refer to the Oasans as “people”?
- In response to the question “Where is God in all of this?”, Bea suggests that “the real question for the bystanders of tragedy is ‘Where are WE in all of this?’” Do you agree?
- “We need a certain proportion of things to be OK in order to be able to cope with other things going wrong.” What does Bea mean by this? Do you agree?
- Faber wrote this book while caring for his wife, who was dying of cancer. Does that affect your interpretation of the book? How?
- What is Faber’s take on the reasons behind religious faith? Do you agree with him?
IN OUR next reading-groups page on 2 November, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting. It is published by MacLehose at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-85705-606-1.
After his grandfather dies, 23-year-old Edvard questions the death of his parents two years previously: an event which has never been fully explained. Even more curiously, it appears, that his grandfather’s brother Einar, long thought dead, may have been somehow involved. As clues begin to emerge, the mystery takes Edvard from his home on a potato farm in remote rural Norway to the Shetland Islands, and then the Somme, in search of truths about his family’s past and his own present. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is a beautifully painted exploration of secrets, betrayal, relationships, and forgiveness.
Lars Mytting was born in the small village of Fåvang, Norway, in 1968, and worked as a non-fiction editor and journalist in Oslo before becoming a full-time writer. He now lives with his wife and twin daughters in the small town of Elverum, south-eastern Norway, an area surrounded by forests, and is best known for his bestselling non-fiction book on the cultural history and practical use of firewood, Norwegian Wood. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme won the Norwegian National Booksellers’ Award, and is his first novel to be translated into English.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS:
DECEMBER My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
JANUARY The Song of Hild by Vibeke Vasbo