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Review of The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel - Michel Faber

“That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion.”
—R.E.M. (1991)


For Peter, it’s the chance of a lifetime. He is a Christian minister chosen to be part of a carefully selected group that has established a settlement on another planet. Peter’s role is to reach out to the native, non-human population, putting him in a position to spread the word of Jesus to a far-flung new outpost of Christendom. Unfortunately, his wife must stay behind on earth during the mission, but they both feel the opportunity is worth the sacrifice.


Peter and Bea were prepared for the physical distance between them but didn’t count on the emotional estrangement. Peter finds his new flock receptive and eager for his teaching while Bea reports an increasingly horrifying series of events from home. It’s a panoply of tragedies back on Earth, from global to personal and back again. Tidal waves, rioting, war, vandalism — the world is tuned to the Misery Channel, and the chaos seems apocalyptic. (Or maybe it’s just the world as flawed as it has always been, less appealing now that there’s an alternative.) Peter can’t or won’t relate to an Earth that seems God-forsaken, while Bea’s faith is tested.


Faber tackles a lot of heavy themes here, but he does it with deftness, letting the story unfold naturally. He addresses the loaded topics of religion and tests of faith without endorsing or condemning. More important, the characters’ beliefs are plausible, even within this rather fantastic setting.


The Oasans themselves are appropriately alien. They are not human, and differ in fundamental ways from humans physically and psychologically. These faceless creatures are somehow still affecting in their frailties. Their struggle to communicate, a physiologic challenge, is handled well, with an inventive depiction of their language.


The Book of Strange New Things is nothing like the other book of Michel Faber’s I have read, The Crimson Petal and the White. I loved that book, a nouveau Victorian novel. This topic and setting are about as different as can be, yet Faber manages to create a story just as compelling, showing that great writing transcends genre.


A copy of this book for review was provided by Random House/NetGalley.