Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Spoiler-free summary [is it just me, or does the "official" summary of this one give away a bit too much?] : Peter, an English pastor with a turbid past, has been chosen to go to the planet Oasis and spread the word of God. He is to serve the humans maintaining the base and the strange, tragic alien race living on the planet. Peter's wife Bea has not been chosen to join him and stays on Earth, awaiting his return. Their faith in God and their faith in each other is shaken as they find themselves infinitely far from one another.

Physically, this book is a beautiful thing. I have a paperback ARC edition, but the pages are gilded and the cover is printed on this strange shimmering paper. It's one of the nicest, most satisfying paperbacks I've ever held. Every time I pick this book up, I can't help but look at it under the light. I also really love that the back cover is part of the design and isn't plastered with a summary or reviews or numbers - it's plain black text on a reddish background. It says: I am with you always, even unto the end of the world... I can't wait to experience the hardcover edition.

The story itself is captivating, but distant. Faber's writing shines brightest when Peter is communing with the Oasan wilderness - the descriptions of the rain were enough to break my heart. I loved the descriptions of the Oasans and their culture. They were wise, robed children. Because the writing is restrained and quiet, I couldn't help but feel we were being robbed of some grotesque, but shattering emotional climaxes. I wanted Peter to burst out of himself. I wanted Peter to do something salacious. I wanted him to want to die. And maybe these things did happen (I definitely think there was more to Peter's sexual intent with Jesus Lover 5 and Granger), but they didn't appear on the page. I can appreciate this - there is an elegance and an implicit trust between writer and reader in leaving things unsaid, but there is also a maddening sense of incompletion. Part of me thinks that this was intentional. We were supposed to feel hollow and grasping at the end of this. We were supposed to want more - but there is nothing more, and we are forced to achingly accept.

I have read quite a few reviews claiming that this book had a "great biblical message" or was in some way pro-faith. I've also seen a few reviews, mostly writing from a Christian point of view, claiming that this novel was anti-Christianity. This intrigues me because, while the characters and their motives are religious, I did not find the message of this novel to be religious, nor did I find it to be non-religious. For me, the message was more about the power of needing. There was a weaknesses in Peter and Bea's relationship, which just happened to include Christianity, but also included a lot of other things. I think the Oasan's need for religion mirrored a similar wanting in Peter and Bea, and this facet of their characters was filled by various things throughout the story: love and intimacy, drugs, religion. This was a novel about filling vast, painful chasms.

Buy The Book of Strange New Things in hardcover on October 28, 2014. 

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