Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 13, 2015

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New ThingsI like to think that I am open to reading debut authors and authors unfamiliar to me  – but sometimes, I have to admit, an author’s ‘name’ and reputation does influence what I read.  So it was for me with The Book of Strange New Things, because I know that I would not have taken it off the shelf if it hadn’t been written by Michel Faber, who captivated me with his stunning debut, Under The Skin.

The story of an evangelical preacher ministering to aliens in a galaxy far away while his wife struggles with the horrors of a dystopian world back on earth?  No, it doesn’t sound like anything I would want to read.   I’m not interested in science fiction or dystopias, and even less interested in a meditation on faith.  But the author’s name lured me into opening the book, and then I was hooked.  I romped through all 584 pages in a couple of days and was sorry to reach the end.

I’m still trying to analyse how Faber has achieved such a compelling novel out of such unpromising material.  It begins with the central character, Peter Leigh, in the car on his way to Heathrow, with his wife, Bea. Uncharacteristically she urges him to bypass a forlorn hitchhiker – she’s a good, kind-hearted woman, supportive of him and his ministry and despite an unedifying past she’s a respectable woman – but she wants to make love with Peter one last time before he sets off on the adventure of a lifetime.  Under the auspices of an enigmatic corporation called USIC, he is to minister to the native inhabitants of Oasis in a galaxy far away.  While he is cradling doubts about whether he is up to it, she wants to sully their farewell love-making at home with a hasty fumble in a car.  He’s not really keen, but he does it anyway.  And then he’s off…

The book is structured so that the third-person narration allows the reader to see and hear what’s happening to Peter on the faraway planet, but we are also privy to the couple’s thoughts and feelings through their emails.   As with many couples in such a situation, things begin well – there are some delays and miscommunications in the beginning, but they share the same sense of importance about his mission, and they express their love and longing for each other in poignant ways.

But things are not as they expected.  Like most missionaries, I suppose, Peter expects that he will have to work hard to make connections with The Other and he is prepared for discouragement, disappointment and perhaps even danger, though of course he is fortified by his faith.  What they are not expecting is that things will turn out to be much easier for him than he anticipated – while life back on earth for Bea suddenly falls apart: there is one natural disaster after another, the economy collapses (Tesco fails!!) and civilised life in London is on a precipice of violence, thuggery and despair.

So while Peter’s faith is being reinforced by events, Bea’s is being challenged.  Their communications become less comprehensible to each other, and they become both more and less careful about what they say to each other – with unintended consequences including occasional hostility.

As this relationship begins to unravel, Peter’s loyalties are tested to the limit.  He discovers that his congregation has profound needs which matter as much to him as the spiritual, and though he tries not to, he begins to resent the offhand attitudes of his colleagues at the base.  He chafes against the procedures, the censorship and the blandness of everything, and as he becomes closer to the Oasans, he starts to feel more comfortable with them than he does with humans.  Things come to a head when he sets out alone for the Oasan settlement and there’s a reality check which had me reading far too late into the night.

I loved this book, and I think I loved it all the more because I was reluctant about it!

Update 18/1/15 Also see Tony’s thoughts at Tony’s Book World.

Update 27/12/15 Check out Nathan Hobby’s thoughts too; this novel made it into his Top Five.

Author: Michel Faber
Title: The Book of Strange New Things
Publisher: Canongate, 2014
ISBN: 9781782114079
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin, Australia.

Availability

Fishpond: The Book of Strange New Things


Responses

  1. Wow, what a reaction you had to this book, given your reading preferences. It must be really good! I have The Crimson Petal and the Whute on my tbr and will read that prior to this new book. Like you, I was a huge fan of Under the Skin.

    • I think I should get hold of that one too, I’m not sure how I came to miss it, maybe I was LOL having one of my not-buying-any-books resolutions!

  2. I loved this one too! I also went into it reluctantly. I actually quite like dystopian novels, but religion is normally a subject I avoid and so I was surprised about how much this book interested me. I haven’t tried any of his previous books, but am looking forward to doing so now.

  3. I saw him do a reading of this in London before Christmas, but I haven’t read the book myself (it’s sitting on my Kindle lying in wait). He talked a lot about his wife, whom had recently died, and he was clearly still very grief stricken and had most of the audience in tears at the end. He wrote the book while he was caring for her during a long illness and said some days he would only write one sentence — and that was purely on the encouragement of his wife who said he must not give up writing (she was his editor).

    • Oh, that makes it even more poignant. As you read, you can sense how much the character Peter loves his wife, torn between his passion for his work and his devotion to her, his guilt when he feels disconnected from her because of his work. It is brilliant because it is heartfelt…

      • Before the event started he wandered around the seating area taking photographs of a pair of shoes. When the event started he put the shoes in the front row. He later explained they were his wife’s shoes: she used to go to all his readings and this was his way of making sure she was present at the ones for this novel. No wonder the audience was in tears…😥

        • Oh dear, it sounds as if he wasn’t really ready to do the event, poor man.

          • I did get the feeling that he was over-sharing but figured that was his way of dealing with it.

            • Still, you have to admire a man not afraid to show his feelings like that.

  4. I was SO not drawn to this novel despite positive responses to it elsewhere but you, Lisa Hill, may have just lessened my negativity. You write on all writing so very well, and the books you love so irresistibly you have become a massive danger to my purse and to my wobbling piles of TBR. Together with Kimbofo’s moving experience above I’m now drawn towards this novel (I have loved his other writings very much and was bemused by the subject matter of this one).
    I’ll be in Australia in a few weeks and intending to read then from my kindle and op shops. I’m still taken aback at how speedily you read though. My pace is good but not not as swift as you, how do you do it?

    • A trip to Australia in summer, let’s hope the weather behaves itself for you!
      Yes, I am a quick reader, I did a test once that put me at 600 wpm – but the real secret is that I abandon my other responsibilities, and sometimes even sleep to read my books. Fortunately LOL The Spouse takes care of the shopping and the cooking or we would go hungry.

  5. Hi Lisa – I was in two minds about this novel too, having recently finished The Crimson Petal and the White (which I did enjoy). But like you, this one didn’t sound like my kind of thing – but you’ve convinced me! Kate xx

    • Excellent, *chuckle* that’s what I love to do, persuade people to read the books I love:)

  6. Like you I wasn’t sure about this because of the themes of religion, and the dystopian thing. But I LOVED it. I found it moving, and fascinating, and compelling. Made me buy and read Under the Skin which I loved too. Which then made me watch the Scarlett Johansson film of Under the Skin a couple of nights ago. So I feel I am all about Faber at the moment. I’m going to read his backlist too. Wonderful stuff!

    • I didn’t know there was a film of Under the Skin! I bet it was creepy! I’ve never forgotten my sense of horror when it dawned on me, at the same time as it dawned on the character, exactly what was going on.

      • It’s a new film, with like I said Scarlett Johansson. VERY CREEPY. Worth watching I thought. Very pared down compared to the book, quite well done in that way. Did not explain anything and left it for ages before the reveal. If someone watched it without having read the book they would be scratching their heads until the last ten minutes.

        • Hmm, maybe I’ll stick with memories of the book!

      • I couldn’t bring myself to see it when it hit our cinema screens here last summer… I don’t think I even want to see it on DVD.

  7. I’m on the very long waitlist for this at the library and didn’t even know much about it. Now I finally know thanks to you and I am looking forward to it even more! Glad to hear it is so good :)

    • Don’t you hate that, the long waitlist? And part of the trouble with this one is that it’s long so a normal reader will probably keep it for the full loan period. (My library doesn’t let us renew books if there are reserves waiting). Does you library tell you how many there are ahead of you?

      • There are 93 people in front of me. I could buy a copy but if I did it would just sit on my TBR shelf for who knows how long. At least when my turn comes around at the library I know I will read it right away since I only get it for 3 weeks!

        • 93! But yes, I know what you mean, my TBR shelf is full of must-have, can’t-wait-to-read books that have been there too long.
          Oh well, I don’t have too many other vices.

  8. I was not at all as taken with ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ as you were or as I was with ‘Crimson Petal and the White’ or ‘Under the Skin’. Perhaps it was because of its science fiction leanings.

    • I must admit that the very early chapter about how Peter travelled there didn’t interest,. but fortunately Faber didn’t linger on that and he also didn’t indulge my pet hate, techno-toys and gadgets.

    • Agree with you, Anakatony. I also read The Fire Myth while I was reading The Book of Strange New Things and thought it tighter and more outrageous. It is about the discovery of a fifth book of The New Testament, the Book of Malthus, and is very funny. I have The Crimson Petal and the White because I love a good Victorian thriller, but the arch framing if the story is hard to get past.

      • Sorry I’ve taken so long to get to this comment, it’s taken me a while to fathom WordPress’s new notifications system for comments.
        I like the sound of The Fire Myth:)

        • WordPress has “improved” its system, ha ha…

          • I think it’s designed for people who carry their phones around all day and can stop whatever they are doing all day just to read notifications as they ping onto their phones and reply. But for ordinary mortals like me, who have a *life* checking notifications is an on again/off again situation, and when I was at work I could only do it when I got home. Some days there might be dozens of comments to attend to!
            Also, with a book blog, old posts still get frequent visitors and they can comment months after I’ve written the review. Clearly the boffins at WP have not thought of this!

            • Yes, it does seem to be all about phones. We dinosaurs still using desktops are on the way out….

              • *chuckle* I shall start signing myself out as LoTech Lisa a.k.a. Deskosaurus

                • Just waiting for the meteor to hit.

  9. Hi Lisa – I’m sure that it’s one of those books which would repay in-depth reflection and discussion. It would be nice to hear what a book group makes of it. I suspect that over the years its reputation will grow. I am pleased you enjoyed it but for myself I made what you might call more of a surface reading.

  10. Thanks Lisa… you’ve talked me into it! Plus because it’s so pretty I might lash and get the hardcover :-)


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