Thursday 23 February 2017

The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber

Peter Leigh is a man with a mission - literally! For this mild-mannered Christian minister to be selected to cross the galaxy to preach to and live among an alien race, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. But Peter leaves behind his beloved wife, Beatrice, and while he's out living the dream, Bea is trapped in a nightmare. How can a marriage survive such a distance?

In a literary culture saturated with dystopian futures, Oasis is aptly named as a seeming Utopia. It takes Peter a while to adjust to its days that are three times as long as an earth day, the peculiar regularity of the rains, and the crops and creatures that grow on the planet. The people themselves are difficult for him to connect with, at first; the way they look is hard to picture, the way they speak impossible to translate onto the page, and some of their words and consonants are pictured in symbols the reader has no frame of reference for. I was reminded of last year's film Arrival, where the linguist has to try to communicate with an alien race without any way of translating their language.

But that doesn't really matter. The Oasans are reserved, but kind-hearted, open and eager to hear Peter's message, and the work he puts in to translating the Bible into language they can understand and words they can pronounce is truly a labour of love. They open their hearts and homes to Peter; building a church together and working at the harvest. Probably this is the easiest missionary work ever. It all seems too good to be true. For the pages and chapters where Peter is alone among the Oasans, there seemed to be no conflict at all. And as someone who has studied the craft of writing, this made me uneasy. You just can't have a story without conflict. When, and how, was it going to go wrong?

That question is answered when Peter gets back to the base and reads his messages from Bea. All is not well on Earth. Every message from home brings news of some great catastrophe, whether a natural disaster, economical collapse or political chaos. And it is this dissonance that is the emotional heart of the novel. Like Peter, at first, you can compartmentalise what is happening on Earth, and on Oasis. The events are shocking, but you only hear about them from Bea, and the story you see first-hand is Peter's. And then Peter goes back to the Oasans, and you can relax a while and just enjoy the headway he is making with getting to know these people. That's what feels real.

But you just can't put your spouse to one side like packing a toy away in a cupboard until the next time you want them. They have their own lives, and a relationship must become strained if both parties are living in different realities. Tensions grow between them, as back at home Bea is overwhelmed by personal tragedy, professional struggles, social unrest and religious doubt, all things that Peter can't be whole-heartedly part of. It is devastating to read their messages (conveyed by a primitive email system called The Shoot) as they try to reach out for each other.

The Book of Strange New Things is powerful because of its authenticity. I don't know if Faber's writing was informed by any personal religious faith but Peter and Bea felt real, presented with compassion and with no impression of being seen from the outside. Both have overcome painful pasts to become a strong, supportive team at the heart of their community. Their love for each other quite literally spans the universe. And yet a love story does not end with the "happily ever after." The best relationships have their downs as well as their ups, and require a lot of work. Love is a choice, not just a feeling, and a choice that a couple has to make day after day after day. The Book of Strange New Things ends in one way just as you might hope, and yet there is a bittersweetness to the ending because it is not neat, it is not easy, and it is not over yet. But such is life. Faber has taken a gentle, quite simple tale and made of it an extraordinary examination of humanity, of what is worth living for, of faith, hope and love.

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