The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber - an alien environment for me
It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.
Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.
I dithered about whether to read this book or not. The subject matter is so far outside my normal comfort zone I wasn't sure I'd be able to relate to it in any way but I LOVE the authors previous books.
I seldom read science fiction - I am an atheist who is totally incomprehensive of any form of religious belief - I prefer my books to have a female protagonist. This book ticks none of my boxes, its about a Christian man, Peter who flies off to a recently colonised planet, to preach his religion to the alien inhabitants.
When I told my partner a little about this book which was keeping me reading 'til the early hours he shook his head and asked "You gotta be kidding - why on Earth would YOU read something like that???"
I found myself lost in an alien environment - although I could accept the aliens, the setting and the people, I floundered in the dark to understand how anyone can live their life by a belief as strong and pretty unshakeable as this.
So why did I love it? It has to be the authors innate ability to grab your imagination, throw you into a situation you'll never be comfortable with and with a few well placed words make you feel as at home as you do in your own bed.
The narrator of the story, Peter, is a pastor, a reborn Christian who together with his beloved wife Bea, looks after the congregation in their Church in England. Their devoutness shines from them in their longing to convert every soul they meet to Christianity, their piety is equalled only by their love for each other, which is why they feel their relationship will be strong enough to survive a lengthy separation and as we meet the couple, Peter is setting off on a journey of immense proportions. He has been employed by a major Corporation at a very generous stipend, to fly to another solar system and be the preacher to an indigenous population of alien beings.
He relishes this new challenge and discovers upon arrival that the population of "Oasans" not only accept but relish his teachings, calling his Bible "the book of strange new things".
Meanwhile back at home, Bea is struggling without Peter, her rock. The world is going through a series of disaster after disaster, which compare sufficently with events that we have witnessed to be believable but which become so frequent and so intense that society begins to crumble. Her letters to Peter become more desperate and cynical but he feels so removed from everything he can hardly imagine what she's going through. He tries to share with her the wonders he is experiencing but fails to be able to put it into words.
What happens to a relationship, when the one abiding concept which brought you together becomes the thing which is now driving you apart?
I did struggle with the religious aspect of the book, I knew I would, unlike the aliens I am unable to just accept, I don't get religion at all and never will. But what I did love were the aliens themselves. The way they speak, the descriptions of their homeland and the workers at the USIC base from where Peter is based were all painted so beautifully I was there!
Michel Faber is immaculate at creating vivid characters and placing them in situations you'd never before considered yet being instantly at home there - as in The Crimson Petal and the White, which paints a graphic picture of Victorian prostition yet was so intensely real to me. I grieve for some of the characters still, 5 years after reading it, now thats what I call skilled penmanship!
Above and beyond everything in the book of strange new things, is the story of a long distance relationship, a situation I could relate to and the resultant crisis of faith, which I couldn't, and it was the picture of this happening from both sides in the couples correspondence with each other that really grabbed me.
The details of the world we know falling apart so quickly was so intense and horribly believable that I almost wanted to find it was all in Beas imagination, sadly it isn't and one of the things which happens which eventually causes her to turn away from religion was so harrowing, I almost stopped reading the book at that point, not far from the end.
When Peter uncovers the Oasans enigma, my heart broke for these small gentle, accepting and trusting alien people.
If you, like me, aren't sure about the religious aspect but something about this book, or my review, tempts you I'd recommend giving it a go, it's well worth the effort (the actual reading is effortless) it's left me with lots of questions and is still in my mind 3 days after I finished it, I felt I needed some time to reflect before reviewing, but overall I'm SO very glad I read it it's good to break free from the mould and succumb to something different once in a while and this was a really great book to round off my reading for 2014.