A monumental, genre-defying novel over 10 years in the making, Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things is a masterwork from a writer in full command of his many talents.
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.
©2014 Michel Faber (P)2014 Random House Audio
"The Book of Strange New Things is Michel Faber’s second masterpiece, every bit as luminescent and memorable as The Crimson Petal and the White. It is a portrait of a living, breathing relationship, frayed by distance; it’s an enquiry into the mountains faith can move and the mountains faith can’t move. It is maniacally gripping and vibrant with wit. I didn’t so much read The Book of Strange New Things as inhabit it." (David Mitchell)
"Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things certainly lives up to its title. Faber, as he showed in Under the Skin, does strangeness brilliantly. I can’t remember being so continually and unfailingly surprised by any book for a long time, and part of the surprise is the tenderness and delicacy with which he shows an emotional relationship developing in one direction while withering in another. I found it completely compelling and believable, and admired it enormously." (Philip Pullman)
"Weird and disturbing, like any work of genius, this novel haunted me for the seven nights I spent reading it, and haunts me still. A story of faith that will mesmerize believers and non-believers alike, a story of love in the face of the Apocalypse, a story of humanity set in an alien world - The Book of Strange New Things is desperately beautiful, sad, and unforgettable." (David Benioff)
This book has received much critical acclaim, the New York Times Book Review labeling it “the literature of enchantment.” Another reviewer pronounced it the best novel of the year. With an interesting premise of a missionary traveling to another galaxy, I eagerly went off my usual audiobook diet of non-fiction to try more exotic fare.
Fans of Marcel Faber will no doubt enjoy more of his elegant prose and detailed character development. And if there were an Olympics for audio book narration, Josh Cohen would take home the gold medal with his uncanny mastery of countless voices and accents. Faber explained in an NPR interview that he wrote this book after his wife was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and his understandably dystopian world view definitely comes through in his writing. Although some may categorize this book as science fiction, Faber uses the alien civilization and distant human outpost as more of a device for examining estrangement and relationships.
That said, I found the book ultimately frustrating, and all the favorable reviews surprising. Science fiction fans will probably not consider this book in the genre at all, given how incidental are the details of the other world and its inhabitants. If one would have thought that the first contact with other life forms would have been a momentous historical event, none of the characters in the book apparently think so. The missionary, appropriately named Peter, spends no time reflecting on this singular marvel, but rather sets off for the distant galaxy as if he were traveling to Africa or somewhere, giving more thought to things like how his cat will do in his absence.
Much of the book is devoted to Peter’s communications with his wife back on Earth, who he corresponds with via a crude form of intergalactic email (apparently attachments are too data intensive, sort of like in the early days of dial up). Readers hoping a lot more will happen in this story will be disappointed. For example, we learn that Peter has been hired to replace the pastor who preceded him on the alien planet, who has gone missing without a trace. Tantalizingly named Kurtzberg (hint, Conrad), I won’t drop any spoilers here, but suffice it to say Peter never ventures up river.
Similarly, readers hoping that something enlightening (heck, anything!) will come of the biblical exegesis Peter presents to the childlike aliens will have little to show for a lot of reading, except perhaps Peter’s adept rephrasing of the New Testament into words more easily pronounced by the locals.
In the end, I found myself thinking the setting the author chose was distracting to his purpose. The novel could as easily taken place in any far off corner of the Earth, like Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord. And then readers like me who were hoping for something more like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris would not feel like they bought the wrong book.
But still, that British narrator’s American accents are crazy good…
A slow-reveal sci-fi, this novel clobbered me with its plot, unusual alien life and deep humanity.
It stands alone, a one-off that deserves a wide readership.
When the alien Jesus Lover 5 teaches Pastor Peter about Christianity in the face of death and distance, I shed a tear.
NO! I wanted it to last longer, so I teased out the readings. Perhaps a movie based on it would ease my need for more....
Don't be put off by the fact that the main character is a Christian minister to an alien world. Spreading the Christian word is not the point of the novel. On the other hand, it's not exactly NOT the point of the novel either. Read it and you'll understand that fine distinction.
Not my kind of book. Very little actually happens - it is all description. I like to buy long books bc if it's good, you have a lengthy time to enjoy it. This book made me impatient for it to get on with it.
I kept waiting for something interesting to happen. Many times I thought, "here comes the hook.". Then that fizzled away. I might ask for a refund on this one. I just wish some real conflict had happened.
Lonely, cosmic heartbreak.
The fantastical elements of the book either creep up on you so slow or are thrust upon you so fast that you're as genuinely jarred as the main character upon realizing that the world you're visiting is unlike anything you'd expected or experienced. This happens because of how believable and grounded so much of the story is in the things we understand and can relate to - loneliness, crisis of faith, determination of will and the inability to communicate with a far away loved one, among others.
I wouldn't necessarily say that Faber's story doesn't stand well enough on simply the merits of his words, because he's crafted something that's at once both thrillingly alien and resonantly human at the core. But having experienced his novel through Josh Cohen's mammoth range of raw, realized characterizations, I couldn't possibly fathom the story divorced of him.
The third-to-last and second-to-last chapters - in the infirmary with Jesus Lover 5 and in Peter's Church with him speaking in all Oassan - are both equally crushing.
On top of his skillful handling of international accents that are individually crafted for every single character so that you know that person intimately the moment they appear and reappear in the story, Cohen's unique and jaw-dropping representation of the Oassans' gargling, guttural dialect is something masterful to behold.
I couldn't understand a word the Oasans were saying--it all sounded like static and was so drawn out that I found myself leaving the room sometimes until that part was over. The book didn't have a conclusive ending either.
perhaps not his fault, but the words said by the Oasans sound like dragged-out static on a radio.
not much--the first part was interesting
I just couldn't recommend it. Go read "Under the Skin" instead....a better book by the same author.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber is one of the most difficult audio book I’ve attempted to review. Usually I enjoy a book or I get really irritated by it because the book falls short of what I know the author can do. This book I both enjoyed and found irritating.
It is the story of a Christian missionary who is hired by a major corporation to travel to Oasis, a distant planet, where he is to minister to the local non-human population. He was unable to bring his wife to Oasis, which causes a good deal of personal stress both for him and his wife. There is very little real action in the story. The book is primarily a study of the relationships among the minister, his wife, his fellow humans on Oasis and the non-humans to whom he ministers.
The author does a good job of developing characters that are three dimensional and relatable. Surprisingly, even several of the non-human characters were credible without overly compromising their non-human nature. The sense of culture shock experienced by the minister is credible, as is his reaction. Having spent a lot of time in other parts of the world myself I could relate to this part of the book.
What bothered me the most was the premise that a married missionary would be sent millions of miles from home without his wife. It is an obvious recipe for disaster and no respectable missionary organization would do such a thing nowadays. Even a cost conscious corporation would have researched the literature to take this into account.
It is difficult to understand the non-human interest in Christianity, as there is too little context for the non-human community. There is almost nothing about the native religious beliefs and what they saw in an alien religion from Earth. At least that would have provided a context for understanding their desire for a missionary.
This is a story that if you focus just on the development of characters and relationships it is quite enjoyable, however there are so many questions left unanswered by the end of the book that it is also frustrating, not to mention the gaps in credibility.
Perhaps this was meant to be the first in a trilogy of books. If it is, I’m not sure I’ll try the subsequent books.
The narrator did a fine job.
I teach philosophy in Maine.
Having lived among and worshiped with contemporary British evangelical Christians, I thought that Cohen rendered the hero pastor (Peter's) earnestness and naivety quite accurately. Peter is confident that he can hear the whisperings of God's will in all he does...until he isn't.
The fall away from faith is predictable as a plot, but how it happens is thoughtfully and sensitively described. Never mind the improbabilities of the plot. This is more about the spiritual journey of a single man than the alien world around him.
I loved everything else Michel Faber had written. I forced myself to listen because I loved his writing so much, however, I am deeply disappointed in this new book. The Book Of Strange New Things is boring and dissatisfying. Even under the guise of science fiction, it's premises are unconvincing. OK, we can just try to focus on the husband-wife relationship. Ultimately, this is also dissatisfying, as there is no resolution, and we are left guessing. Skip this one.
Report Inappropriate Content