The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

Peter Leigh was a homeless alcoholic, drug addict and thief until one night when he broke his ankles trying to escape from the police, ended up in hospital and met the love of his life, Beatrice, who was his nurse. Fast forward a few years and Peter is clean, married to Bea and together they run a Christian ministry. Peter is chosen by a corporation called USIC to be the minister for a colony on a planet called Oasis and after his training he leaves Bea in England, and travels to Florida to board the spaceship that will take him to Oasis.

Once there Peter is surprised to find that the usual difficulties faced by missionaries are absent; the Oasans are quiet and unthreatening, they already speak English and are eager to be instructed in the way of God. He spends periods of time living with them in their small village, alternating with time in the USIC base camp, a sterile brightly lit compound filled with hundreds of USIC employees all of whom seem to be good-natured, untroubled and reasonably boring. While there he can communicate with Bea through The Shoot (intergalactic email) and over time her messages become more and more terrifying.

She tells of tsunamis, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, the collapse of the banking system, sweeping blackouts, supermarkets running out of food: in short, your basic end-of-days scenario (although one that seems to be inching ever closer in reality which gives it a certain timely resonance). The reader begins to wonder if perhaps the Oasan colony has a different purpose for humans and what exactly that purpose might be.

This is territory that has been covered before in film and literature but in Faber’s hands it becomes compulsively readable. Like all good books it forces you to make that ‘just one more chapter’ promise with yourself which you inevitably break and before you know it it’s 4am. Although his writing is simple, at times even plain, he creates a world that the reader completely inhabits, so you end up occasionally coming to and finding that you are still in your own bedroom and not on a planet millions of miles away watching a minister and his alien parishioners build a church.

Faber has said this will be his last novel and in the three years since it was published he has kept to his word. His wife Eva was dying while he wrote it and I think his sadness permeates the story. At times it seems like an unbridgeable gulf is opening up between Peter and Bea, and their relationship is being torn apart by outside circumstance. Peter cannot explain what life on an alien planet is like, and Bea is dealing with Earth becoming an alien planet from what they knew before, systems breaking down and total chaos ensuing. It’s hard not to read it as a metaphor for Faber’s own relationship.

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