The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber has been one of my favourite writers for years. The Crimson Petal and the White, Under the Skin, and The Fahrenheit Twins are books that I thought of, unquestioningly, as great. The richness and headiness of Crimson Petal; the fact that the ideas in Under the Skin contributed to me becoming resolutely vegetarian ten years ago; the freshness and boldness of the stories in Fahrenheit – he is undoubtedly a memorable writer. Some writers write books that are all quite similar in subject matter and tone. Faber is not one of these writers.

For some reason, though, I wasn’t especially excited about reading his latest (and his last?) novel, The Book of Strange New Things. I bought it ages ago, but left it unread, despite the shiny, swirly, mesmerising cover.

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It might have been because I’d read some reviews that were less than enthusiastic; and some which mentioned that large parts of the novel kept them in an almost unbearable state of anxiety – not something that I was particularly keen to experience.

I finally read it recently, anyway. (There will be spoilers to follow as I think it would be difficult to write about the book without them, so perhaps don’t read on if you haven’t read it and plan to.) It follows the journey of Peter, a pastor who is employed by a corporation, USIC, to go to the planet Oasis, where he is expected to teach the native inhabitants about Christianity. He leaves his wife, Bea, behind on Earth. When Peter arrives at the USIC base he is not too enamoured of the place. He comes to feel ‘depressed’ in his room; he feels uneasy about the previous pastor and a linguist who have gone missing; the rest of the USIC employees, whilst generally amiable, are also self-contained, detached, kind of hard-edged and mostly sceptical about religion. Whilst Peter tries to fit into this place, Bea’s life, and life on Earth as a whole, falls apart in major ways.

Eventually, it becomes clear that the real reason the USIC base exists is because they knew that Earth was going to fall to pieces, and they would need to move humans elsewhere. Peter was essentially required because the Oasans have an inexplicable obsession with Jesus, and having someone there to be their pastor means that they are motivated to produce food for USIC from an indigenous mushroom-like plant called whiteflower.

I enjoyed and admired many things about this book. The best thing about it was the Oasans. I loved it when Peter finally got to visit them and we were introduced to them and their environment. I suppose partly because there was a long build-up, when he arrived at their settlement and was about to meet them for the first time, I felt a keen sense of wonder and anticipation. I felt that I was there with Peter. And the Oasans did not disappoint. They are solemn and reserved, gentle, and wear long robes that are subtly different colours from each other. They don’t have human faces, although Peter keeps trying to assimilate human faces onto them, despite the fact that they actually resemble ‘a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel’ or ‘a placenta with two foetuses’.

I also loved how Faber approached the Oasan language. They speak English quite well, having been taught by the mysterious missing linguist; but they have trouble pronouncing some English letters. These are replaced, in the book, by the Oasan letter. When Peter starts learning the Oasan language, more and more of his dialogue with them is written purely in Oasan, and is therefore unreadable to us.

The environment itself, too, was brilliantly evoked. The landscape is almost painfully barren, whiteflower being the only thing that will grow successfully. The Oasan settlement is austere. The air quality has an especially strong presence: it is thick and vaporous; an ‘insidious atmosphere’. When Peter thinks about his attempt to sleep in the Oasan settlement, he remembers ‘imagining every minute that the surrounding air was lifting the blankets with invisible fingers and slipping in beside you’. This richness of description, this ability to really draw you into another world, is something that reminded me of Crimson Petal.

And yet. Despite all this, I was unsure, when I finished, how I felt about the novel. It seemed like there was something not quite right about it. I realised that it might have been that I didn’t feel much of anything, except for a kind of queasy disappointment when The Cat Incident was described (which I will not go into further), and the sense of wonder at meeting the Oasans, and then something like relief when Peter decided (spoiler!) he was going to go back to earth and find Bea – even though it also felt like all was already lost by then.

And I remembered something else – a review I had read describing Faber’s previous books has having a ‘nastiness’ about them. And then I read an interview with Faber in which he talks about the influence his wife had on his novels – he would often write uncompromising endings, but she would encourage him to make them more reader-friendly. I wonder if it is this sort of nastiness that I felt was present in this novel (The Cat Incident!!) and that I couldn’t quite get over it enough to feel that the ending sufficiently made up for the often ruthless tone of the rest of the book.

I also felt confused about what Faber was aiming for with this book. Was it supposed to be an exploration of how strong, or not, the bond of love is? Was it supposed to be an examination of Christianity? In the interview with Faber he says that it was meant to be a book about how amazing human beings are, illustrated by the idea that (spoiler alert, again!) the Oasans can’t heal themselves, which explains their obsession with Jesus and the resurrection. (There is also a moment when Peter is seriously injured, and the Oasans assume he must be dead, as they would be if they suffered the same injuries. But he returns to them and they see it as a miracle; as confirmation that resurrection is possible.) Although I appreciated these separate strands, I never really felt that they came together into a cohesive novel. The fact that the Oasans can’t heal themselves was presented as a moment of astounding revelation to Peter – but I kind of felt like it came too late, and that it wasn’t a significant enough hinge for the whole novel to hang on.

It has been interesting to read Michel Faber again, and also to read interviews about and reviews of the book, and to think about how my opinion of him as a writer has changed. It was around ten years ago that I first read his stuff. It would be great to revisit those earlier works and see if I have the same overwhelming, unconditional love for them now that I did then.

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