Note: I received a free copy of this novel from Crown Publishing (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.
When we think of books that are daring, we typically think of those that are brash, exuberant, and unapologetic, full of controversial ideas and voluptuous language. And yet The Book of Strange New Things is, in its own quiet and unassuming way, just as daring as author Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White—a frankly sexual spin on the classic Victorian novel. By contrast, in The Book of Strange New Things—a hybrid love story/apocalyptic saga/anti-imperialist parable—it is not sex or crime or gory detail that proves shocking, but rather the author’s surprising earnestness. In a genre increasingly populated by grimy dystopias and naked cynicism, the subtler, slow-building, gently mournful tone of Faber’s latest novel truly does feel both strange and new.
This is not to say that The Book of Strange New Things is lacking in gritty realism; there are portions of the novel that are genuinely difficult to read. Its protagonist, minister Peter Leigh, was once homeless and a drug addict; his wife, Bea, is a survivor of sexual abuse. Its setting is Oasis, an alien planet in the midst of colonization by a shady multinational corporation. It chronicles, in stark fashion, the breakdown of society back on Earth following a wave of corporate bankruptcies, senseless crimes, and natural disasters. It examines, in sometimes painful detail, the strain placed on a loving marriage by the sheer weight of distance and ultimately unsharable experience. Underlying all of it, though, is a sweetness—a gentle reminder of both the fragility and miraculousness of life and love that by all rights ought to seem cliché, but manages, somehow, to feel fresh and beautiful.
In fact, The Book of Strange New Things is a novel that skirts the edge of one cliché after another only to either bypass them or—more impressively—reinvest them with emotional significance. It is in part a novel about colonialism, but unlike other, outwardly similar ventures in science fiction, it is no straightforward allegory. The mistreatment of Oasis’s natives is ultimately less a matter of greed or opportunism than it is of complacent ignorance; Oasis’s settlers simply have no interest in the Oasans, and it is that sterile remoteness that ultimately proves devastating.
But perhaps The Book of Strange New Things is a kind of allegory, after all. Though it is not Peter himself who initially brings Christianity to the Oasans, it is Peter who becomes a Christ-like figure to them, living amongst them for a brief time, enjoying a kind of “miraculous return” from death, and ultimately departing, passing on his well-thumbed King James Bible to the Oasans he leaves behind.
It is a plot that could easily bear all kinds of unfortunate implications—the white man who saves the eager souls of another species (i.e. race)—but in Faber’s hands, it becomes something much more complex and interesting. It is not simply that Peter himself is a flawed messiah, but that the very presence of humans on Oasis is itself a bureaucratized and bloodless perversion of religion—a “Rapture by committee” that guts humanity of its most human aspects while letting only the rich man into paradise. And while the Oasans, for their part, prove hungry for Peter’s religious teachings, they do so for reasons that are at once deeply human and ultimately unfathomable to anyone but themselves. However similar to us they are in thought and feeling, their particular experiences of life are unknowable, and the spiritual guidance Peter offers correspondingly insufficient:
As he walked between the pews [of the Oasans’ church], the surreal montage of paintings on the ceiling hung heavy over him…The scarecrow in the loincloth, so different from the kindly mensch of Christian tradition, had suddenly become terrifying. The blaze of light where His head should be and the eye-shaped holes in His starfish hands, which Peter had once taken as evidence that God could not be confined to the iconography of one race, now struck him as proof of an unbreachable gulf.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, is Faber’s treatment of the equally fraught cultural counterpart to the white savior—namely, the “noble savage.” Initially bemused by the Oasans’ strange appearance and eerie serenity, Peter is soon charmed by the simplicity of the Oasans’ lives; living in unadorned houses, lacking any real concept of either past or future, and apparently unhampered by the “circus displays of ego” that plague human interactions, the Oasans are, Peter thinks, “like the most Buddhist-y Buddhists imaginable.” It is, however, a simplicity that ultimately proves deceptive, not because it conceals any sinister tendencies on the part of the Oasans, but rather because it is so inextricably tied to the central tragedy of their existence. That there is nonetheless something moving in the purity of the Oasans’ faith is part of what makes the novel so haunting; the Oasans are, as Peter ultimately says, so achingly human that it is impossible not to respond to them in kind, and yet their reality is so different from ours that it feels almost indecent—even exploitative—to extract life lessons from their experiences.
There is so much more I would like to praise about The Book of Strange New Things—the gorgeous and often heartbreaking efforts to wed spirituality and bodily experience, the tact and complexity with which both Peter’s faith and doubts are handled, the sheer imaginativeness of the alien world Faber constructs. For that matter, I’ve barely touched on Faber’s incredible portrait of a relationship under stress—incredible in that it avoids all sentimentality while still retaining a core belief in the ability of love to transcend vast distances and differences (“[Bea] was his wife. He loved her. Surely somewhere in the universe, allowing for the laws of time and space and relativity, there must be a place where that could still be possible”). Ultimately, though I can’t quite parse the many ways in which this novel affected me (and as I write that, I remember that the problems of translation are themselves the starting point for some of the novel’s most poignant passages). So instead, I’ll simply say this: read it, if you get the chance. I doubt you’ll regret it.