Five-hundred page books aren’t easy to read straight through, but Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a brilliant exception.
Called to a mission of a lifetime, Peter travels light-years from his wife, Bea, to an astonishing new environment. He’s to preach to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings. But when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate—natural disasters are rampant and governments are crumbling—her faith begins to falter. Peter, rattled and heartsick, is forced to choose: historic humanitarian work, or the love of his life.
The bit about light-years isn’t metaphorical: Peter blasts into space to proselytize to aliens. There are basic comparisons to be made with The Poisonwood Bible (which I read right before), but Peter lacks a sense of superiority or cruelty towards the natives, called Oasans. Because Strange New Things is about an encounter between two completely different species, it doesn’t share Poisonwood’s commentary on race and power. Ultimately, this makes Strange New Things a lighter read, but there’s an ominous sense throughout that Peter, blinded by naïve awe, is overlooking something obvious and dark.
There are two stories operating simultaneously: 1) Peter and Bea’s long-distance relationship, and 2) Peter’s outreach efforts to the Oasans. Peter and Bea can’t communicate by phone or video; they’re limited to email. Because the narration is in close third-person (following Peter), the reader knows nothing about Bea’s life on Earth beyond her typed words. She and Peter have numerous misunderstandings as they mistake each other’s tone and try to guess the other’s thoughts. These letters, and Peter’s reactions, are effective in putting the reader on his side. The reader knows exactly as much about her current life as Peter so her words are as unexpected to the reader as they are to him.
There’s talk of making The Book of Strange New Things into a television show and these letters are the aspect I most worry about in an adaptation. Putting blocks of text on screen would look terrible and show-runners will want Bea to be a proper character. It’s likely that a photogenic actress will be cast to read Bea’s tales of woe, possibly over a montage of ruined cities. The viewer would then see Bea’s perspective in addition to Peter’s, but the novel is better for being Peter-centric. It makes the distance more palpable. Peter isn’t just cut off from Bea, but from everyone on Earth. As Bea’s life enters unfamiliar territory, a gap widens in their relationship and he throws himself deeper into his mission.
And what to say about the mission without divulging spoilers?
The most engaging element of this book is the way Oasan culture is slowly unspooled and revealed to Peter. Oasans speak their own language which is written in non-standard characters. As Peter grows accustomed to their way of speaking, the dialogue includes more of these characters for an immersive experience. At times, Peter’s evangelical side is tiring; he uses a lot of cliches and platitudes in early chapters. It’s not his religiosity that grows tiresome, but its simplicity and his resultant lack of intellectual curiosity. Though he’s often eye-rollingly saccharine, he’s sincere and means well. He becomes more interesting when interacting with the Oasans.
Yes, the mission was daunting and, yes, he wasn’t in the best shape. But here he was, on the threshold of meeting an entirely new kind of people, an encounter chosen for him by God. Whatever was fated to happen, it would surely be precious and amazing. His whole life—he understood that now, as the facades of the unknown city loomed up before him, harboring unimaginable wonders—his whole life had been leading up to this. (98)
Overall: 4.6 (out of 5) Solid, entertaining, very unique and compulsively readable. The level of detail makes events with the Oasans easy to imagine despite their strangeness. I read all 500 pages in one sitting.
Translation: Read it.