The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (Canongate 2014)

Book of Strange New ThingsThis novel, Michel Faber’s latest (and last?), hits you like a boot in the gut. Whether that’s a recommendation or a warning is up to you. With Faber, the gloves are always off: I can’t think of another writer, offhand,who can match his forensic intensity in laying bare his characters’ inner lives. Set in a dystopian near future, the book centres on the marriageof Peter and Bea; both committed Christians, Peter’s the charismatic pastor of his local parish, while Bea is a harried NHS nurse. (They’ve been inseparable since they met, when Bea saved him from a secular hell of booze, poverty and petty crime.) Seemingly out of the blue, Peter is offered the chance of a lifetime: to travel to an alien planet as a missionary, and bring the word of God to its people. NASA is no more, replaced by a private (very private) consortium called USIC. USIC have developed a form of space travel known only as “the Jump”, enabling astronauts to journey to the far-off planet Oasis. Peter learns that USIC is in desperate need of a pastor, for reasons which are not immediately clear. However, they are prepared to pay him an extravagant salary for a six-month tour of duty on Oasis, enough to set up Peter, Bea AND their needy parishioners quite nicely on his return. Though the prospect of leaving behind Bea (and their cat, Joshua) is acutely painful, Peter elects to take the mission, and – after an emotional farewell to his wife –he’s duly zapped across the galaxy to meet his new flock.

The Oasans seem, at first, an unprepossessing crowd. Intensely private, they live in a small village (dubbed “Freaktown” by the crudely non-PC USIC personnel) some fifty miles from the main USIC HQ. Short, slightly-built, they seem almost identical: though they are humanoid, with five fingers, their faces are foetal monstrosities, and the only way Peter can tell them apart is by their colour-coded, monk-like robes. To Peter’s surprise, the Oasans can not only speak crude English, but are also eager to learn more of the Bible (“The Book of Strange New Things”), and their saviour Jesus Christ; it seems Peter wasn’t the first pastor to visit Oasis. His predecessor stayed for a few months and then disappeared; nobody has seen him since. (Another USIC employee, a linguist who helped teach the Oasans English, has also “gone native” and vanished.) Peter decides to stay with the Oasans in their village, hoping to learn more of their customs and personalities while teaching them about JC; every few weeks, he returns to the USIC compound to check his messages from Bea (the pair able to communicate over vast distances by a kind of galactic email). But as the months go by, and the conditions on Earth continue to worsen, the prolonged separation threatens to create an irreparable rift between them…

As the plot develops, and Bea’s reports of the collapse of society back home grow increasingly distraught, the novel becomes almost unbearably distressing. The reader is inextricably locked into the nervous system of the characters, feeling every hardship, every setback, every tragedy like a body-blow. What draws you on, often against your own better instincts, is the compulsive readability of Faber’s prose. God, he can write. The emotional intensity is extraordinarily vivid, often agonisingly so. To many readers, Peter’s decision to leave his wife (albeit temporarily) for something as abstract as religious faith, will seem maddeningly reckless. The knowledge that Faber’s own wife died during the final stages of the novel’s creation lends a dreadful poignancy to the theme of separation, each painful email exchange packed tight with feeling. Peter’s USIC colleagues (wry loners and malcontents, a lovely collection of character sketches) are unable to relate to his personal problems, intensifying his sense of isolation; the only one who shares his pain is Grainger, the troubled pharmacist with self-harm, addiction and father issues. (That Grainger is also female, single and cute gives Peter, and the reader, additional angst: we hope his faith, and his loyalty to Bea, are as strong as Peter thinks they are.) But Peter gains a brief reprieve from his woes through his work with the Oasans. Slowly he begins to win their trust, and recognise subtle traits of individuality among them. The Oasans have little sense of their own personality, or gender; the names they give themselves are comically utilitarian – Jesus Lover One, Two, Three etc – suggesting a profound natural humility that could make them the perfect Christians. The Eden-like qualities of the planet (water like nectar, warm and balmy atmosphere, benign populace) are certainly apparent, but the humans who stray into this untouched paradise are less than elated by the experience; to the contrary, it seems to make them either crazy or depressed. Is humanity, then, irretrievably fallen from grace? Faber thinks not – and, after reading this stunning novel, you might be convinced of it too. Mesmerising and euphoric, it may be the closest thing to a religious experience a non-believer can get.