Review: The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber packs a powerful emotional punch. Shortly after he started writing it, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and I can only believe that this contributed greatly to the powerful sense of impending loss that grows throughout the story. That Faber can bowl us over emotionally with such understated storytelling and such a relatively quiet plotline says a lot about his talent. When I finished, I had to close the book and just think about it for a while and deal with the emotions.

Peter Leigh is a pastor who is accepted as a missionary to the alien population of a planet (presumably the only planet) where mankind has set up a colony. The colony has been established by a wealthy corporation, USIC, for purposes that are not clear to Peter. He doesn't really care anyway. He is so thrilled to have this historic opportunity that he asks few questions. He regrets that they did not also accept to send his wife, but both of them take on this temporary separation in a spirit of sacrifice. When he arrives at the planet Oasis, he finds that the challenges facing him are entirely different than what he expected. And while he is there, the situation on Earth, which was bad when he left, deteriorates rapidly and his wife is left to handle it all on her own. She is not a fragile flower, but they have been a very close couple and the separation at a time of such great stress is very difficult for them.

Where Faber really excels is in depicting the interior life of Peter. I was quite honestly surprised. Faber makes no secret of his atheism, but both Peter and his faith are drawn sympathetically and plausibly. I think Faber missed the ultimate core of what faith is all about, but in all fairness, a lot of Christians do too, which is why they crumble under stress. I will resist the temptation to go any further into a theological analysis of the book – that's not what this blog is about – but it was an important part of my personal reaction to the story. I have been involved in missions, and I have also been separated from my husband for long periods of time, so I could relate to this story on a lot of levels. Faber gets the human side of this very, very right. Where he gets the faith part wrong is where a lot of people get it wrong, so it is a fair take.

An aspect I found very interesting which I have not seen mentioned in the reviews I have read is the culture shock that Peter experiences when he returns to the base. This is a common experience among missionaries. As they adapt to the culture they are working in, they feel increasingly out of synch with their own. We get a fascinating look at Peter's mindset gradually becoming alien. Faber went to considerable trouble to make the aliens genuinely foreign. Although roughly humanoid, their psychology and culture is quite different. Peter finds it very exasperating trying to get information out of them because their perceptions and preoccupations are so very different. But he settles into their way of thinking and living and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with humans.

I found the chapter titles a bit mystifying until I realized that each one was the last line of the chapter, giving us a brief flash of where this chapter might be heading. And the brief flash was invariably misleading, at least for me.  A rather intriguing way of doing things.

The normal science fiction enthusiasts might find this story a little too quiet for their liking. This is a story of Peter and his attempt to grow into a foreign culture without growing away from his wife, of him trying to maintain his faith – so central to his life – as it is buffeted by storm. So if you are looking for a rip-roaring, plot-driven story, go elsewhere. If you are looking for a beautiful and haunting portrait of a human soul, The Book of Strange New Things is for you.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.