Review: The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber
Published: October 2014
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that has always been there, and the next minute it’s just a memory.”
The Book of Strange New Things is one of those rare books that completely blew me away from start to finish, and almost instantly made it onto my favorite list. The story follows our protagonist Peter, a minister who has been send on a mission to preach his faith to an alien colony, lightyears away from earth. Saying that that is all this book is about, would not do it justice though. There is so much more depth to it than meets the eye.
This is a novel about distance (both physical miles, but more importantly emotional distance between people), about love and loss, about being away from home, about hope and the lies we tell ourselves sometimes to keep that hope alive…. It’s about tolerance and acceptance of differences, and the way our beliefs can unite some, but just as well can drive others apart. I have to say I was a little nervous going into this book, especially with regards to that last point. Books on religion are such a hit-or-miss for me that I often just avoid them altogether. The moment a book starts to feel one-sided or “preachy” to me either way (pro-religion or anti-religion), is often the moment I lose interest in it, and my biggest fear was that this book would do just that. Michel Faber completely avoided this cliché however, to the point where I honestly don’t know where he himself stands on the matter. For the novel at hand, I don’t think he could have handled the subject any better. Religion is used more as a metaphor for other things, as opposed to an end-goal in itself, and both the good sides as well as the bad ones are brought to light in this novel. The same could be said for the characters. Take our protagonist Peter for example: he is a devoted man in any sense of the word: devoted to his beliefs, devoted to his job and above all devoted to his wife. As the story progresses however, it’s that same devotion to all he does that will become his downfall. For the majority of this book I wasn’t sure whether I liked Peter or not. Many of his actions seem admirable, yet it’s those same actions that make me think of him as a selfish ass at times, especially with regards to the way he treats his wife Bea.
This relationship between Peter and his wife Bea, who has to stay behind on earth while her husband goes on his mission, is the backbone of the novel. Despite the fact that their only way of interacting is through an e-mail like format, the reader gets an intimate look into the dynamic between the two, and the way it’s affected by the time and distance they spend apart. It’s touching, it’s heartbreaking and it rings very true for anyone who has experienced of drifting apart from someone and being unable to close that distance, no matter how hard you try.
The fact that I’m reviewing a Sci-fi novel and only now get to the aliens says enough about the type of book this is. This is not an action-sci-fi, nor are the aliens the primary focus in my opinion. They do however bring some very interesting scenes and some incredible food for thought to the table. Faber does a great job of imagining a society that is free of some of the cognitive and social constructs that are in place on earth, for better or for worse. This again ends up ringing home that sense of “distance” between them and Peter, that runs through this entire book.
In the end, The Book of Strange New Things was an incredible read: smart, emotional and memorable. I will for sure pick up more of Michel Fabers books in the future.