Michel Faber‘s new novel The Book of Strange New Things is so strange and so different from The Crimson Petal and the White that it came as a bit of a shock. Parts of it were written downstairs in Primrose Hill Bookshop which I am sure you all know, is one of my favourite haunts in all London!
We start the book in the car on the way to Heathrow Airport, Peter and Beatrice are about to separate for he has been chosen as a new missionary and she is staying at home with the cat, Joshua. There is a poignancy about this, since he is nervous and she is worried that he will never come back and yet he is about to hurtle off into the unknown as part of a collaboration with an American organisation called USIC, the full meaning of which is never clear.
Suddenly, in what appears to be a moment of desperate madness, Bea begs him to stop the car and make love to her on the back seat – whether it was the discomfort, the embarrassment or the suddenness of this demand, he complies but it is only partially successful, he is left feeling slightly disgusted and ashamed, though Bea seems to be perfectly happy.
We next encounter him being prepared for his mission, which it turns out is in a capsule speeding to a distant planet. USIC are setting up there and Peter’s mission is to the “aliens” or “freakies”, though as Peter wisely points out – the Americans are the aliens on Oasis (the unlikely name of this planet having been chosen by Coretta and selected at random from many offerings).
After a few days in which reorientation is slow, difficult and hallucinatory, Peter gets to start his missionary objective, taken in a vehicle to C-2 he meets the creatures he is to teach. To his amazement there are already several Jesus Lovers, one to fifty five at least, and so gradually the mystery unfolds – both for him and for us.
The Book of Strange New Things (aka The King James’ Bible) is the basis of his teaching, but the people that he is teaching (and only Peter regards them as people, by the way) cannot make sibilants or t-sounds – so even saying ‘Jesus’ is something of a challenge. Eventually Peter begins to translate the text into language that contains none of these difficult sounds.
The Book of Strange New Things is a wonder. The description of the planet that they are on, the lack of features but the beauty of the rain; the total lack of sympathy for the indigenous people by all but Peter and the total lack of empathy for each other shown by the team are deftly painted; and all that passes between these characters is deeply moving and interesting, where the book comes alive though it the contact between Bea and Peter through an apparatus called the Shoot.
Their letters to each other, hers increasingly desperate and his more and more distant, are the spine of this book, hanging off which are all the other human reactions and lack of reaction in his other team workers, and the gentle friendliness of his “flock”. His struggles with himself and with his mission are tellingly depicted in the most fluid and poetic language; their language is written in something not unlike ‘windings‘, but the meanings are clear if you have a mind to figure it out; their touching concern for him and fear that he will leave them is palpable, altogether though neither he nor anyone else outside their settlement can distinguish one from another except by the myriad, rainbow-hued clothes that they wear. His sense that they have accepted him utterly and completely is a thing of joy.
This is a book about faith, but also one about the fragility of the human and the fragility of our own planet – cataclysmic disasters are occurring at home and he is baffled by the increasing hysteria of Bea’s communications but it is not until the very end that he fully recognises his need for her, the perfect complement to his personality.
It is a truly marvellous book – in every sense of the word. At around this time I begin to speculate on what might end up in the Man Booker Prize Long-list, will this book? I certainly hope so.