Book of the week: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

A missionary is sent to spread the gospel to a distant planet, and the the very notion of what is means to be human is grappled with in unusually direct terms

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To say that a book deals with “what it means to be human” is a reviewer’s cliché rendered both appealing and pointless by never being wrong: any narrative produced by a human must express something about that state.

But Michel Faber’s new novel grapples with the issue in unusually direct terms, not least by placing its protagonist largely in the company of creatures from a whole other race.

Peter Leigh knows what he’s doing on the distant planet C2, or Oasis, with rather more certainty than some of the other earthling workers posted there, because he’s guided by his faith. A Christian missionary has been requested by the somewhat mysterious company running the human settlement there; a Christian missionary is what Peter is, and so, having been deemed capable by a battery of personality tests, he has taken up the brief. God’s will. But what of the will of Beatrice, his beloved wife and habitual partner in proselytising, left far behind on Earth? What is the true will of the company, USIC, in bringing Christianity to the planet they’re developing – and, indeed, in setting up there in the first place? And what of the Oasans themselves – so polite, despite their offputting appearance; so welcoming, with their sweet greeting, “You and I – never before now”; so given to choruses of “Amazing Grace”? Can they truly be as receptive to Peter’s mission as they initially seem?

Though he has written largely on the fleshier and more murderous extremes of human and non-human behaviour – gory alien people-farming in Under the Skin (2000); Victorian prostitution in The Crimson Petal and the White (2002); religious fundamentalism and the carnivorous cynicism of the publishing world in The Fire Gospel (2008) – the fascination of Faber’s prose style is its lack of sensationalism. His voice on the page is serene and oddly innocent; and Faber himself is routinely described by the journalists with whom he reluctantly speaks as serious, childlike, vulnerable, with a mixed background (Dutch-born, Australian-raised, Scotland-dwelling) that may account for a fascination with aliens and alienation.

The combination of qualities that comes across from him and his writing – a keen awareness of the darkest things in life, a wide-eyed curiosity about why they occur and a stubborn appreciation of the beauty with which they co-exist, all wedded to a certain perpetual outsider-dom – is a good fit for a religious missionary, though Faber himself is an atheist. Crucially for the sincerity of The Book of Strange New Things, Peter and his faith are presented without mockery, and the story of his mission as an experience befalling a real, feeling man, not – say – an allegory for what damage dogma and conversion have done in the world. So prevalent in the ranks of the verbose intelligentsia is the notion of all religion as a mere cover story for greed and wrongdoing that the depiction of a religious man as a sincere do-gooder feels discreetly radical, and permits Faber to ask profound questions not about the performance or misapplication of faith, but about the true condition thereof – and how that condition can be reconciled to a collective existence plagued by undeserved misfortune.

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Like Under the Skin, his new book makes sad-eyed fun of our farming and eating habits (David Rose/REX)

This is not to say that The Book of Strange New Things cannot be read as social or political allegory. Like Under the Skin, it makes sad-eyed fun of our farming and eating habits – the human occupants of the settlement on Oasis consume local plants and insects pummelled and dyed into approximations of Earth food – and our use and misuse of fellow creatures; and like any work of fiction that finds one civilisation imposing itself upon another, it carries a critique of colonial incursions and white Western arrogance. Faber is on record as a Joseph Conrad fan, and Heart of Darkness floats near him on this journey; Peter’s mysteriously vanished predecessor as pastor to the Oasans is named Kurtzberg.

But this novel most potently concerns itself with matters at once more quotidian and more challenging than these. It is as much about the minor failures of communication that can erode marital intimacy as it is about contacting other beings, and as much about the existential terror inherent in putative parenthood as it is about travel to far-off worlds. As the once-inseparable Peter and Beatrice, now worlds apart, struggle to comprehend one another’s day-to-day lives, Faber lets a devastating possibility shuffle to the fore: every relationship is long-distance, and every person a strange new planet. The methods whereby we try to minimise difference, meanwhile, are themselves unstable – language most palpably so.

The Oasans are hungry for the Gospels, but in order for them to understand them, Peter must take an already translated text and from it excise consonant sounds they have difficulty pronouncing and references that have no resonance in their lives (the prevalence of sheep is a particular problem). Where, within this process, is the word of God in which they have invested so much? Wider questions suggest themselves, though Faber does not force them. How can we know what is conveyed to someone else by what we say, when their experience of the words we use might be subtly or radically different? In teaching a child to speak, do we allow it a means to express itself – or impose on it a structure that inevitably contorts and misrepresents its subjective experience of the world? And where does all of this leave Peter and Beatrice, who have only words with which to maintain their once-effortless intimacy?

Like the faces of the Oasans – which have no eyes or mouth on which to read an expression, and so somehow evade the gaze, refusing to make visual sense – The Book of Strange New Things offers no easy interpretations. It is at once rather blank and simple, Faber not being given to directing the reader in what he or she should think, and richly suggestive. As to genre, one might call it sci-fi, speculative fiction, literary fiction – or maybe just welcome it, thankfully, with a “Never before now”.

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