The Book of Strange New Things: Michel Faber

★★★★

Peter Leigh believes in miracles. He has escaped a past of alcoholism and addiction, and rebuilt his life with his beloved wife Bea at his side. As a pastor, he hopes to inspire others with the love of God that eventually gave him the strength to break out of his own spiral of destruction. And yet even he is amazed by the marvellous thing that has just happened to him. The vast corporation USIC has selected him, from the hundreds they interviewed, to travel out to the newly-settled world of Oasis, where he will minister to the indigenous population. It’s the greatest missionary opportunity since the days of the early Church. Peter can’t wait to get started. And yet there is one bitterly sad thing about his new adventure. He will have to leave his darling Bea behind.

Peter and Bea console themselves with the thought that this is only a temporary thing. Moreover, they can keep in touch via ‘Shoot’ technology, which allows them to send and receive text-based messages across the thousands of miles of space that separate them. As Peter arrives on Oasis, exhausted and confused by the hyperspace leap that brought him here, he’s determined to write about everything to Bea. Their first letters are eager, newsy, and yet full of the pain of separation. Nothing interrupts them, until the first time that Peter goes out on his own into the ‘field’, to live for a time with the native Oasans.

But it’s here that things begin to change. Peter anticipated a struggle with the Oasans, but instead he finds rapturous welcome. Primed by the efforts of a former missionary, a significant number of the Oasans have already come to the love of Christ. They’re eager to learn more and they have enough basic English for Peter to begin his ministry straight away. Despite the physical differences between humans and Oasans, he is ravished by their passion for Christ, and their humble, simple, yet rich lives. The more time he spends with them, the more he gains from their interactions, and the harder it becomes for him to put his experiences into sterile words for Bea. Far away at home, Bea is having her own crisis of faith. She desperately misses her husband but, worse, the Earth seems to be crumbling around her. As natural disasters mount up and society breaks down into chaos, Bea sends her cries for help out across the universe, waiting for answers…

I suppose this is a sci-fi novel: you can’t get away from the fact there are spaceships and strange tech and, yes, aliens, if you must call them that. But Faber’s novel isn’t really about that. He uses the sci-fi apparatus as a frame to discuss deeper issues. What are the boundaries of love? If we feel the call of God, or some other higher power, to what extent should we follow it? Is it better to care for the many or the few? How do we cope when those we love are far away from us? How can we maintain a rich, loving relationship when we’re away from home and experiencing things that simply can’t be described? How do we tackle loneliness and all the feelings of fear and inadequacy that come with it? If we are people of faith, how far can we use that faith as a crutch? What happens when the realities of the world around us make it difficult to sustain our faith in God or Jesus or the innate benevolence of whichever power we choose to believe in? I should note that Faber makes no authorial ‘interventions’ about religion one way or the other; you have no sense of his own opinions. This is the tale of a man of faith, told purely and devotedly from his own perspective. It must be one of the rare sci-fi novels with an active and evangelical Christian at its heart (I presume Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is another such, but I haven’t read that yet).

This paragraph might be considered spoilery, so beware. I assume that the names of the two main characters are significant? Peter is, of course, the rock of the Church, its founder and the first apostle. Beatrice is the distant, unattainable beloved, whose example inspires her lover to better himself. (On the subject of names, Faber says in his note that all the surnames have been chosen as tributes to the Marvel Comics illustrators of the 1970s, which is a rather unexpected but cheerful little nugget.) And then we have Peter’s own narrative arc with the Oasans, which is very Christ-like. His arrival to teach them; his rendering of eternal truths into simpler language for them; his wounding (which acquires greater significance when we learn about the Oasans’ vulnerability) and presumed death; his return to them (was it after three days? I wasn’t counting), and his affirmation of his mission, followed by his departure. This was something that dawned on me only gradually, but in retrospect it formed an undeniable parallel.

This story of two lovers separated by an unfathomable distance is moving in its own right, but it becomes heartbreaking when you know the context in which it was created. Faber began to write it when his wife, Eva, was already fighting cancer. She died in June 2014, while the book was still in its final stages. Faber wrote the final drafts under what his author’s note calls, with remarkable understatement, ‘difficult circumstances’. (My TBR pile includes his poetry collection Undying, written during and after her last illness. Having recently lost someone close to me, I don’t quite feel up to reading it yet.) 

It is especially poignant to think that, while Faber faced the loss of his own wife, he was creating this story of resilience, desperation and regret – of two people desperately reaching out to one another across a void that might part them forever – of a couple suddenly unable to understand what the other is going through – and yet, despite all of this, that he had the grace and compassion to end it with a note of hope. A beautiful book: tender, probing, generous and heartfelt. The more I read of Michel Faber’s work, the more impressed I am.

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