I've just recently read a book I can't believe I even picked up. I've been trying to write a review that would capture how very moved and challenged I was by it, but have come to discover how pathetically inadequate I am to do it justice. I am haunted by it, though, and despite being halfway through another really good book I find my mind and heart wandering back to The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber so often that I can scarce pay attention to its replacement in my hand.
I've given up trying to be coherent about this genre-defying story so I'm taking the easy way out. I hope that you will get some sense of how much I want you to read this from the scattershot words that follow.
Here's the very least you need to know, which I have lifted straight from the publisher's description of it.
It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he 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 seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly 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.
As I have been handselling this one, I have made note of the words I'm using in that setting, the questions that people naturally have of me regarding it, and the thoughts about it that keep running through my head and I'm sharing those sentiments with you.
1. "Oh, I never read science fiction." Neither do I, and it doesn't matter. Once you accept the premise--that intergalactic space travel and colonization on a distant planet is the norm--that's really all you have to "get over."
2. Why set this on another planet? Maybe because in our day and age it's impossible to find a place on Earth where a person, separated from his wife to take a job, would be utterly unable to communicate in real time with her, to undertake independent plans to return home to her in a crisis, or to have any idea what might be going on in a world left behind outside the context of Peter's one-to-one, sporadic communiques with Bea.
3. More than once I thought about times in my own marriage when my husband and I seemed to be doing little more than orbiting each other, and there was something about how Bea and Peter experienced this same thing--a hundredfold, and more literally--that spoke to those emotional memories like few books ever have.
4. There are some things that remain unexplained, some things that the end of the book left hanging. Since Faber says he will not be writing another book at all, we can be quite certain there will be no sequel providing any answers. The whole book is a journey into the unknown and unknowable for Peter. For that reason, the journey we find ourselves on with him at the book's conclusion is an authentic experience for the invested reader.
5. No, this is not a book where a person of faith turns out to be the bad guy. (Seriously, this happens so often in fiction that even I tend to shy away from books with ministers of the Gospel as main characters.)
6. No, it is not a "Christian" book. That said, Faber is respectful of Peter's faith and plies it with credible opportunities for challenge, and growth, and reflection.
7. No, I haven't seen Intergalactic. I have no idea if there are shades of this story in that one, but surely there must be some Big Questions they have in common.
8. Yes, I think this would make an outstanding book club read.
There are far more thorough reviews of this book you can find easily, some of which reference other novels as having broken this same ground. I don't doubt that's true, but you know what? I haven't read those books, so that doesn't matter to me. (After all, there really are only about six stories in our universe, all of which are rewritten over and over.) The telling thing is that even when the occasional reviewer is finding fault with it for that reason, there is still deep admiration for the elegance and subtlety of Faber's writing.
The Book of Strange New Things is, in short, a frightfully good read. Please make room for it on your bookshelf.