I hope you’re having a wonderful beginning of week. Today I’d like to tell you about a novel I have recently read: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.
I did not especially enjoy this novel and this is why it took me quite a long time to finish it. Plus, it’s a loooong book (584 pages for the paperback). However, it’s probably worth telling you a bit about it because it contains some interesting elements and also because some people who have awesome reading tastes liked it (Jen Campbell, for instance) – so you may well enjoyed this novel!
The Book of Strange New Things is the story of a Christian missionary called Peter who is selected to take part in a huge project led by USIC, a mysterious organization/company that has colonized a new planet, Oasis. He is sent to this planet to preach to the Christian minority among the native people, the Oasans. The Oasans share some human features but they speak their own language and are considered as freaks by the people working for USIC. The hundreds of Oasans who are Christian and have named themselves “Jesus Lover number X” (replace X by a number) are deeply fascinated by the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things, and very eager to learn more about it with Peter.
The Oasans having displaced their settlement in a remote area far from the USIC base, Peter spends long periods of isolation among the Oasans, far from the “human civilization”. Only at the USIC base can he communicate with Bea, his wife, who is waiting for him at home. Thanks to the Shoot, they can send letters to each other. But very quickly, Bea’s letters become very dark and worrying as her life, her country and the planet as a whole are falling apart.
What I liked about this book is the uncanny and even unsettling vibe that surrounds the plot. There is a growing tension throughout the novel and I suspected that something bad was going to happen to some characters, starting with Peter. We do not exactly know what organization USIC is nor what its mission is for quite a long time, until Peter finally finds out the truth about it (which was actually quite obvious). We do not know what’s going to happen to Peter, where the blow is going to come from, whether the Jesus Lover Oasans are as pure and friendly as they pretend and whether the USIC staff’s motivations, goals and behaviours are really legit. Add to this that the previous missionary mysteriously disappeared during his mission on Oasis and you’ll get the full picture.
However, even if the premise of this novel was very interesting and created intriguing leads, these leads were not used at all. Not only is this novel very slow-paced, its general plot also really lacks strong moments and twists. With all the clues we are given, we can expect many things. Unfortunately, none of the things we were entitled to imagine actually happen. Very very little happens in the whole novel and this is probably one of the reasons why I found it so boring. I am not especially attracted by action-driven books but I believe that a science fiction novel needs some action, which this novel clearly lacks. I read some reviews calling this book a “literary” science fiction novel and even if I’m not sure that I agree with that (I did not find the writing special or pleasant to read, on the contrary the author’s style seemed a bit dull to me!), I must admit that this book is definitely not a mainstream science fiction novel. However, I’m not sure that this “half-sci fi, half-literary fiction” combo works. For me, this book was definitely not literary enough and did not have a strong or entertaining plot either (despite all its promises), which means that it failed in both categories. I must say that I also deeply disliked the character of Peter, who behaved as an asshole throughout the novel and generally lacked psychological depth (the penitent alcoholic who was saved by love and religion is a bit of a cliché I reckon).
I would like to end this review on a positive note because yes, I did like some of the themes this book deals with (the colonizing/colonized relationship is subtly evoked) and I think it bears some more or less explicit messages I agree with (depicting our world falling apart on many aspects, the collapse of the capitalist system, the outburst of natural elements and so on is actually a good way to warn us, readers, against a bleak future we can expect if we generally keep behaving this way, isn’t it?). Finally, this book also has one of the most beautiful covers I have seen. Even the cover of the paperback version, which is the one I own (and the one which illustrates this article – I found the picture here), is simply stunning!
If you read this novel, I would love to know what you’ve thought of it.
See you soon!
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. Published by Canongate (2014)