38. ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

OK guys, be patient with me, I have to try and write this review without crying. It’ll be hard, because The Book of Strange New Things is so utterly brilliant that it broke my heart.

Peter is a Christian missionary who is going on a very special mission. (If the premise ‘Christian missionary in space’ has immediately put you off, please just keep reading. This book is so so SO good, I promise.) A huge company called USIC is funding Peter’s journey through a wormhole, to a colony on a planet called Oasis, on the other side of the universe. A scientific base has already been established there, but the human community keeps itself separate from the native aliens – it will be Peter’s job to take the word of God to the aliens, live with them and learn more about them. So what’s the real kicker? Peter is leaving his wife, Bea, who he loves dearly, back at home, and while he’s away things start to go seriously wrong on Earth.

book of strange new things

The tone of this book is just perfect. It is quiet, gentle and non-sensationalist, which provides quite an eerie contrast with its epic themes. I think it is summed up best by Peter’s first encounter with an alien native – this is a major, major event and it happens almost when he isn’t looking.

“The event had occurred too suddenly, he felt; it lacked the drama appropriate to his first sighting of an Oasan native … the encounter was already underway, and Peter had missed its beginning.”

All the way through the book there’s a sensation of being lulled: the scientists in the base don’t seem concerned with what is happening back on Earth, barely any news gets through to Oasis, and nobody else on the base has left an important person behind. Because Bea is so far away, and Peter can only communicate with her over email, she begins to lose her reality for him, while the Oasans become more and more distinct and finely drawn. For all of its sci-fi elements, this is essentially a love story: how can love survive across such vast and incomprehensible distances?

I won’t tell you much about the Oasans, because I couldn’t do justice to Faber’s descriptions of them, but the way he presents their language is just brilliant. They can speak some English, but their sibilant sounds are quite different and Faber represents these with bizarre symbols. He also comes up with some absolutely gorgeous similes to describe how the aliens speak. For example, “it sounded like a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete”.

I devoured this book in a single Saturday, and its gentle pace gradually builds up into an ending filled with revelations and discoveries. These aren’t wham-bam dramatic though – they follow the tone of the rest of the book, appearing gradually, like they are dawning on the reader, not with a bang but a whimper. The writing is stunning, the characters are wonderful and the story draws you in like a siren calling from a rock.

Maybe you’re still unconvinced, although I’m sure you can’t be because I’m selling this book so hard, but get ready for the real emotional punch to the gut. Michel Faber wrote this book while his wife, Eva, was dying of cancer. She died last year. A writer herself, she always helped Michel with his books, and following her death he has vowed not to write any more fiction. Instead he is focusing on finishing off her short stories, and writing a biography of her life for her friends and family which will never be published for the public. This love story of a man and wife separated my immeasurable distances is therefore not purely fiction, but it is Michel Faber’s last.

“You are far away, so incredibly far away, further away than any man has ever been from his woman, the sheer distance makes me ill.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here. (There are two covers available, one featuring Peter, one featuring Bea.)

4 Comments on “38. ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

  1. Both the story of the book and the writer’s life sound very interesting.. nonetheless sad… I loved the cover and the review s very convincing :)

    By the way, your blog layout is looking really cool :)

  2. Clare

    Its interesting innit? Boyhood Island, reflecting so intelligently on my own boyhood is something I have almost become preachy about: you gotta read it; its terrific; it so real its unbelievable. But death and cancer is very, very real to me NOW and sorry, cant bring myself to even give this a go.

    • Fair enough – as far as I remember, cancer isn’t mentioned in the book at all. But sometimes something that resonates with an old memory, even a bad one, can be compelling, but something current is just a bit too much.

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