Review: “The Book of Strange New Things,” Michel Faber

Rating:  4/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  A monumental, genre-defying novel more than ten years in the making, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a masterwork from the author of the renowed The Crimson Petal and the White.

Peter, a devoted man of faith, is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea.  Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC.  His work introduces him to a seeming friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hunger for Peter’s teachings – his Bible is their “Book of Strange New Things.”  But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasing desperate – typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling.  Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable.  While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer,  Bea is struggling for survival.

Replete with emotional complexity and marked by the same bravura storytelling that made The Crimson Petal and the White such an international success, The Book of Strange New Things is a gripping, hauntingly profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.

May I take a moment to appreciate that synopsis?  It takes you up to the last page of the book and gives you almost no information.  It’s really a thing of beauty.

I might just be procrastinating because I’m not sure what to write.  I am glad I read this book, but I haven’t the faintest idea what I think about it.  I was going to put off writing the review, but I don’t think my thoughts will get much clearer, so this might be a little different.

Let’s start with something easy:  I didn’t like the main character.  It’s fairly unusual that I like a book in which that is the case, but this seems to be an exception.  Peter is mildly obnoxious and runs through the pages of most of the books sticking faith on wounds like Band-Aids on a bullet hole.  He is trite and full of fake sincerity that made me want to vomit.  His wife is similar for most of the novel.  However, it is truly masterful how well Faber communicates what is happening to her through only her letters to Peter.  It is unbelievably easy to imagine what she is going through and how she is feeling (and, also masterfully, the fact that it is so easy to imagine is an important plot point).

For the first two-thirds of this book, I enjoyed the world-building, but not much was happening.  Then, all of a sudden, things started to happen.  Then, much to my surprise, they stopped just as suddenly.  It was strange.  At the end, I’m fairly certain that there were more questions left unanswered than were answered.

Michel Faber has said that this will be his last novel.  It was written as his wife was dying of cancer, and that very much informs the narrative.  There are multiple passages that are utterly beautiful and heart-wrenching.

I don’t know what else to say about this.  One reviewer noted that it seemed like a wonderful first chapter to an apocalyptic novel that will never be written, and there is something to be said about that.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a novel about the failings (or not) of faith, the non-alienness of alien life, and the strength (or not) of love through adversity.  I can’t describe it adequately.  Just read it.


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