Faber’s latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, tells the story of a husband and wife, Peter and Beatrice, separated by an unfathomable distance and the consequent strains this puts on their relationship. It is also a work of science fiction or speculative fiction, as the novel’s protagonist is a missionary who travels without his wife to a USIC colony on a different planet. His mission is to minister to the native population of Oasis, who are eager to learn from The Book of Strange New Things, or what we would call the Bible.
I have only read it once, and for this particular novel, I don’t think that is enough. I read it hungrily, driven by a desire to know the outcome of the novel. However, there are obviously deeper layers, beyond the relationship between Peter and Beatrice; comments on corporate capitalism, religion, our fears for the future of our planet, human nature and our attitude towards non-humans, are all elements of this work.
Peter is a difficult character to engage with sometimes, in some ways he is emotionally inept; having swapped alcohol and drug addiction for a different fix – religion. However, Peter’s emotional avoidance perhaps also reflects the author, Michel Faber’s, inability to deal with certain aspects of the impending separation from his wife of thirty years, Eva, who was dying of cancer during the writing of the novel. Their relationship was apparently one of creative collaboration, in addition to the usual husband/wife dynamic, and he has since said in interviews that The Book of Strange New Things will be his last novel, for that reason.
“[W]hen your partner is dying of a disease that you don’t have and you know that you are going to outlive her, they are on a different planet. They’ve already gone somewhere where you can’t follow. The book ended up embodying that, even though it wasn’t planned.” Michel Faber
It’s not for me to delve into the psychological state of someone I don’t even know, so I won’t say any more about this. However, I think that The Book of Strange New Things also engages with the inadequacies of human relationships and the failure of language and the written word as a form of communication. Peter and Beatrice can only communicate via a type of email system and Peter is wracked with doubts about the message his flock is taking from the Bible and whether they are interpreting it as he wishes them to do so. Something which is also pertinent to us on this planet, as the Bible is a collection of books which can be interpreted and utilised in many different ways, depending on the ideological stance of the reader or preacher.
While I was reading the novel, John Donne’s famous words, “no man is an island,” kept coming to mind. I have no way of knowing if they were at all present in the author’s imagination, but I am struck by the relevance of Donne’s Meditation 17, to the novel’s themes.
We are all interconnected, every being in the universe, and yet we are also alone; death makes us painfully aware of this fact.
“I don’t think literature helps. I don’t think writing helps anybody, or the writer. But it is what suggests itself to be possible at particular times. And besides The Book of Strange New Things is my last novel, and we both knew that.” Michel Faber
I hope that Faber changes his mind, as I think he has a great deal more to say as a novelist.