There have been several books I’ve read in 2014 that led to me aborting part way through. Not so the last two, the remarkable Goldfinch and now this, The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. To read two such magnificent novels, back to back, is a rare thing indeed.
I am, I confess, a diehard fan of Faber’s (I have a signed copy) and will fight his corner in any greatest living writer debates. He may not be so but he has an ability to subvert genres like no other (well Margaret Atwood perhaps.)
In The Book of Strange New Things (The King James Bible; in Oasan). Faber takes us on a spiritual journey that is profoundly moving and discombobulating. Whilst technically it is a sci-fi novel it laughs in the face of sic-fi convention, glossing over at every turn the science that underpins it.
Instead, it seeks to place a love story in a place where the usual distractions of life are removed. (By love I mean both love of one’s life partner and love of God expressed in that great word Agape “love: esp. brotherly love, charity; the love of God for man and of man for God.” For this book is about Agape and its battle with mortal love. Which will win and why?)
Essentially the story is about a Christian missionary sent on a mission to a planet called Oasis. The minister, Peter, has come from the church of hard knocks having met his beloved wife in a Damascan moment in a hospital where he was recovering from a drug-fuelled accident.
Their love is unconditional, until, that is, he leaves her to perform his missionary task for some unexplained organisation called USIC. His job is to take up where his predecessor left off in tending to the alien Oasan flock. Not a bunch of “heathens” but a part-converted group of Jesus lovers (and named so in order of their conversion i.e. Jesus Lover One, Two and so on).
What has happened to his ‘gone native’ predecessor and why?
Why is it such a painstaking selection process to find Peter (the name so appropriate)?
These are just two of the questions that the plot gradually reveals. But this book is much less about plot than about understanding the meaning of, well, everything really.
As his mission develops and the love of the Oasans grows for Peter so his love for his wife, Bea on earth, becomes increasingly challenged (agape over mortality) and this somewhat unorthodox paradise becomes more and more contrasted to a world in which civil unrest and Force Majeurs are unfolding like the biblical plagues upon Israel.
Faber has a rare ability to suspend belief (he did so unbelievably well in his debut novel; Under the Skin also) and effortlessly takes you into the highly befuddled mind of the main protagonist – despite the fact the book is written in the third person.
But what seals the deal for me is the back story.
Faber claims this will be his last novel, partly because he feels he has no more writing in him, but possibly more so because he is suffering such terrible grief at the death of his own, unconditionally loved, wife. He nursed her through her terminal cancer throughout the writing of this novel, restricting himself to only a few sentences of writing a day (but at the express orders of his wife).
The novel was conceived before her diagnosis but the parallels are mind boggling. The great joy in this, however, is that she saw the book’s completion and went to her rest in the knowledge that she was a part of a true literary masterpiece.
No one who has read this book can fail to be moved by this parallel and so our thanks must go as much to Michel Faber as to Eva, to whom, unsurprisingly, it is dedicated.
Seriously folks, this is a must read novel.
PS. Read about how the cover was conceived (yet another great thing about the book) here.