‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber – The Monthly Book

November 2014

Welcome to the Monthly Book.

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.

The Book of Strange New Things Michel Faber

This month’s Monthly Book should keep you intrigued for the summer – it’s a novel of love and grief, a dystopian travelogue, a triumph of imaginative fiction with interests in story, language, the body, the environment and the power of belief.

Michel Faber was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Australia and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. His first novel, Under the Skin, was short-listed for the Whitbread Award for First Novel 2000 and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2002. It was the basis for a recent film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson. His third novel, the best-selling The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), was an amalgam of just about every classic Victorian novel you’ve ever read, but full of steamy scenes of prostitution, madness, violence, poverty, and religious agony and ecstasy.

In The Book of Strange New Things, a Christian missionary, Peter Leigh, takes a new posting with a company called USIC. He is sent to a distant planet called Oasis, and his job is to preach to an alien life form, the Oasans, who live there. The Oasans have already embraced Christianity through a missionary by the name of Mark Kurtzberg, and they are thirsty for Peter’s message.

But Peter is forced to leave his wife, Beatrice, back on Earth. The separation is a wrench to their passionate and intimate connection, but it’s supposed to be only for a short time. The two are evangelising Christians together. Except for this new posting. No married couple have ever been this far apart.

They begin to communicate by way of intergalactic emails. Before long, Peter’s experiences in the colony on this strange planet – meeting alien life forms who communicate in a different tongue, trying to work out not only how his colleagues think but also how the Oasans operate – and Bea’s experiences on Earth – dealing with environmental disasters and civil unrest – make it harder for the man and his wife on Earth to keep their connection strong.

Rather than follow the tropes of science fiction, Faber offers a surrealistic imagining of what another life form might be like. As he told me in our video interview:

“I think that if there’s anything that sets this book apart from science fiction, if you like, it’s that I’m completely uninterested in the how of it. In fact, I had to tweak the book a bit once I’d written it after I’d got advice from other people. So, for example, my wife said, ‘Look, you’ve got this planet that’s only got one life form on it. You can’t have that. A planet needs to have an ecosystem; something needs to eat something else’ … but instinctively my interest was in the characters, what was happening between Peter and Bea, the ideas behind the book, and, even more than that, the philosophy and the sensibility in the prose. I was very interested in how you would feel as a result of having read this book. That’s what I always start with: what sort of state do I want people to be in as a result of having engaged with this book that I’ve written. Then all the other things follow: the story and the set-up and the plot.”

As you’ll learn from our interview, Faber’s wife, Eva Youren, was diagnosed with cancer while Faber was writing the book. She died a few months before it was published. Faber explains the parallel between the fictional couple and his own personal situation:

“With Under the Skin, I was dealing a particular kind of alienation and I did that through an alien. And with this book … in a sense the person with the cancer is living on another planet. They are living on Planet Cancer, and you’re not living there with them. They’ve travelled somewhere where you can’t go. So that’s a distance already, to begin with. And you’re also anticipating loss, and I knew when I started this book that it would be about loss of many kinds. I didn’t know it would be the loss of Eva. So it was, in an eerie sort of way, anticipatory of that. And Eva and I both knew as I was getting closer to finishing the book that in effect it was going to be a goodbye, from me to her.”

I think you’ll enjoy The Book of Strange New Things, an engrossing and affecting book. The remarkable Michel Faber is deft in his use of both humour and philosophical thinking.

Watch the interview

Read the transcript