The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
So, we all know that Michel Faber is a master of strangeness. My favorite book of his is The Crimson Petal and the White, but there is no denying that his sci-fi work is genius. Under the Skin, the story of an other-worldly woman who disguises herself as human to lure single male hitchhikers, is haunting and terrifying and deliciously unlike anything else I’d ever read.
This turned me on to Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter Leigh, a minister and former drug addict, is chosen by a large global company to bring Christianity to a community of humanoid people on a plant called Oasis, where the company has built a base. Peter leaves his wife, Bea, behind, and as he becomes more and more wrapped up in his work on Oasis, it becomes clear that Bea’s world is literally crumbling without him. And not just her world — the whole world.
The fact that “Peter” means “stone” or “rock” is not a coincidence. Peter is a touchstone for Bea, who finds herself somewhat crazed without him, questioning God and humanity and faith and everything good in the world, falling apart physically and emotionally. Meanwhile, the Oasans have found their rock in Peter, building him a church and buying wholesale into the promises of Christianity.
Faber is the master of twists, but I was underwhelmed by this one a bit. I won’t go too in depth, but while I appreciate the miracle of human life that Faber was trying to convey (Bea’s injured hand contrasted with Jesus Lover Five’s injured hand), I sort of expected more drama. Some reason why every person at the base on Oasis is dead behind the eyes, some reason why Earth is falling into chaos, some reason the Oasans are the way they are on a personal level.
There were no answers for any of those things. Instead, we do get a reason why the Oasans are so willing to embrace Christianity, which is nice. We also get a little redemption for Peter, though it might be too little, too late.
I spent the entire last two-thirds of the book wondering how a man so loving could also be so selfish. Bea and Peter’s co-worker Grainger were the only characters I grew to actually love through the course of the book. They are the most broken, but they are the only ones who show what I consider a plausible spark of emotion and feeling.
Peter, through much of the meat of this story, seems to be totally on a separate plane, getting high off of Jesus and the unwavering adoration of the Oasans much as he used to get high on more traditional narcotics. Even his Jesus Lovers urge him to go home and help his wife — to leave the 99 sheep in the wilderness to rescue the one who is lost, as they put it — but he remains blissfully obstinate, claiming unselfishness while actually enjoying the most extreme form of ego-stroking.
This is not to say that Faber didn’t intend this. In fact, I think he did. Bea calls Peter on his selfishness, and when he responds along the lines of, “Sorry, babe, doing God’s work over here,” I think the reader is meant to share in Bea’s fury. The question, of course, is whether or not Peter can fix this relationship, whether it can heal — indeed, whether the world can heal from the chaos it’s experienced in his absence. Though we don’t get a solid answer from Faber, we do get an indirect one — that the miracle of humanity is our ability to heal and scar.