Since Bill and I both read Michel Faber’s newest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, at the same time, we’ve decided to share this review.
The Book of Strange New Things is a marvelous exploration of human faith and faithfulness in the most trying of circumstances. It follows Peter, a British evangelical minister, as he undertakes a missionary venture on Oasis, a recently colonized planet. Behind him he leaves his wife and partner in faith, Beatrice, to continue their ministry on Earth. However, life on Earth gets increasingly difficult and dangerous after Peter leaves, and his relationship with Bea — continued solely via e-mail — begins to fracture as their experiences of God diverge.
One of the major strengths of The Book of Strange New Things is its portrayal of the relationship between Peter and Bea. The letters exchanged between the couple are both heartwarming and realistic. At the beginning, their reliance on each other and faith in their relationship seems unshakeable. They talk about everything — even their last awkward sexual encounter before Peter’s departure — with a level of honesty and acceptance that characterizes the best of relationships. As Peter becomes deeply involved in his ministry to the native Oasans, Bea continues to write him daily, despite hearing nothing back from him for several days, with no recrimination or sense of tit-for-tat. And in the midst of his work on Oasis, Peter draws strength from his memories of Bea: their first meeting, her strong hands, what her wedding dress looked like.
However, as Bea’s life teeters on the edge of collapse, the tone of her missives changes from encouraging to plaintive to harsh. She asks for more support from Peter, who has become so immersed in his mission that he has trouble relating to any stories of life back on Earth. Faber depicts this gradual rift between the couple deftly and without prejudice; I found myself siding with Peter when I read his e-mails, and siding with Bea when I read hers. It was a moving portrayal of misunderstanding and hurt between two essentially well-meaning people.
What did you think, Bill?
Bill: I agree that the relationship between these two is one of the major strengths of The Book of Strange New Things. As you say, the letters are both realistic and honest (I suppose cynics might argue that’s mutually exclusive in human relationships), and I really liked how Faber doesn’t portray it as idealized or overly sentimental, which I think would have been an easy trap to fall into. And that very measured widening that occurs between them is more effective for how realistically the relationship was presented early on. That growing rift lends the novel a sense of emotional suspense as it moves toward potential tragedy. I have to admit, though, I was more on Bea’s side of things, regardless of which letter I was reading. While I could intellectually get Peter’s side, emotionally, he was a bit too detached/aloof for me to feel for him as much as for Bea.
Another aspect I really liked of The Book of Strange New Things was its exploration of the relationship between lived human experience and an unknowable God. The connection between the two is cunningly mirrored on the cover, which shows two hands reaching for each other across a dark, starry sky. At first glance, the hands resemble Michelangelo’s hands of God and Adam from the Sistine Chapel (also referenced in the book). But if you look more closely, you can see that both hands wear wedding bands, as if Peter and Beatrice reach to make contact across the literal and metaphorical space that divides them.
Took the words right out of my mouth! (hangs head, confesses he never even looked at the cover)
Cultural portrayals of religion can be divisive, which is a shame because religion itself is such an important component of human experience and history.
I was impressed by Faber’s depiction of Peter’s Christian faith. Not a stereotype of an out-of-touch religious nut nor a saccharine-sweet Mary Sue, Peter is likeable and earnest in his beliefs. Faber portrays Peter’s faith from the inside — we learn what it feels like to be close to God, to be engaged with God’s work, to believe — without seeming to have a religious agenda himself.
I too was impressed with the religious aspect of the novel, which is saying something coming from an avowed atheist (though I actually prefer “apathist”). The portrayal was thoughtful, respectful, insightful without, as you say, crossing over into stereotype or worse, caricature. Delving into religion can be a minefield for an author, especially as it is so thoroughly embedded at the core of this novel and permeates nearly every aspect of it, and I think Faber did a masterful job in navigating that minefield in such a manner that the reader was neither turned off “Ewwww, religion!” or made too self-righteously comfortable (“Christians Rule!”), but instead was left to ponder deeply some very large questions of faith and non-faith.
Yeah! I’m a former Christian, and am pretty protective of that part of my history/identity; it bugs me when Christianity, or religious belief in general, is misrepresented as something only fanatics or stupid people buy into. Peter is not portrayed as either of those. I think The Book of Strange New Things could be a great (fictional) place for believers and non-believers alike to encounter each others’ perspectives.
I think where we diverged a bit in our reaction was in response to the speculative fiction aspects of the book. For me, this was the weakest feature. I don’t think this was so much a lack of execution or talent on Faber’s part, but more a matter of his not really caring much about that aspect, as the focus was more on humans’ relationships — to each other, to the universe/god. I felt he tossed in the speculative points — the new planet setting, the spaceship, the aliens, the looming apocalypse on Earth — so as to allow him to tell the story he wanted to tell, and whether they made much sense or not, or were richly developed or not, didn’t much matter to him. For the most part, this didn’t bother me; I was fine for instance with the space travel hand-waving and the relatively sparse characterization of the aliens outside their role as possible converts (though they were portrayed nicely as actually alien, not simply as funny looking humans).
But I confess I just couldn’t shake a few basic questions, ones that did nag at me the whole time: What would make anyone think human medicine was having any effect on alien metabolism? Why is there no mention of any other attempt to find a refuge for humanity? For non-genre fans, I think this won’t be an issue at all (save perhaps that human drug one — see, still can’t let that go). For genre fans, I believe the book’s realism bent and its depth of character and thought will more than make up for the occasional sigh of frustration.
I wasn’t frustrated with this stuff while I was reading, although now that Bill brings it up, they are great questions. Another issue I’m left with has to do with USIC, the company that sends Peter on his mission. The explanation for why a corporation would need a minister on staff is pretty flimsily dealt with, as is the question of where the Oasans encountered religion to begin with. However, as I said, while I was reading, I was so engrossed by the characters that none of those plot holes got in the way. As an inveterate evangelist for SFF, I think this book would work well for a reader of literature who might shy away from anything that telegraphs “science fiction.” In other words, I would definitely recommend it as a gateway book for someone who I wanted to get into the “hard stuff.” (My evangelism metaphor seems to have shifted into a drug-dealing metaphor.)
Well, considering Peter’s past, that’s an appropriate metaphor… My only other quibble with the book would be its length. It’s not inordinately long, but I did think it could have lost some pages. There were places it lagged a bit for me, despite the sterling nature of the prose and the rich characterization. OK, and maybe Peter was a bit too oblivious to what was going on with Earth and what the purpose of this colony on another planet was. All right, and perhaps the Noah’s Ark references were one or two too many, and the names — Peter, Beatrice, etc. — a bit too on point. But those are, as I said, just quibbles. And like you, I’d definitely recommend it, both for sci-fi-shy readers and pretty much anyone else.
So that’s two votes for a 4-star rating for this thoughtful and thought-provoking novel.
Kate’s notes on the audiobook: Josh Cohen narrated The Book of Strange New Things for Random House Audio. His narration was clean and neutral, performed in a cultured British accent. He sounded a bit too young and cultured to be the voice of Peter, whose life before Bea was so full of drugs and violence that Cohen’s soothing, actorly tones contrasted with the image I had in my head. But he did a great job with all the voices in the book, capturing (in American accents) BG’s casual bravado, Granger’s sullenness. And the delivery of the Oasan voices, the way they struggle with some sounds like t’s and s’s, was eerie and otherworldly. Cohen made them alien, yet friendly–like E.T.