The Book of Strange New Things is well titled. What things? you may ask. How new? What do you mean ‘strange’? Answering any such questions about Michel Faber’s latest magnum opus would necessitate spoilers – and since a large part of the pleasure to be had in this particularly strange new book lie in the twists and turns of plot, I’d rather do the backstory rather than the story-story.
I stumbled upon Michel Faber by accident. Browsing through a bookstore one day a sticker, half-obscuring the cover of a book, caught my eye. On it, was a glowing recommendation by one of my favourite authors; underneath it was a cruel, pointed fishhook on a blank white background. I found myself quickly hooked – and found Under the Skin (Michel Faber’s first book) every bit as creepily compelling as the cover promised. I resolved to read everything he’d ever written.
Next on my list was The Crimson Petal and The White – a massive tome, set in Victorian London, and about as far in setting, tone and place from the alien-infested Scottish highlands of Under the Skin as it’s possible to get. The book went on to become a block-buster BBC mini-series, with an A-list cast and the costume department on overdrive. Bustles bustled, handlebar moustaches bristled, it was all very fab.
Then came the news that Faber was working on a new novel which he announced would be his last. His wife of twenty-six years, Eva Youren, was dying of cancer – she died in July – and for Faber, the point of novel-writing died with her. “Being a published writer is something that happened to me unexpectedly as a result of Eva’s encouragement to put my stuff out there. On an emotional level writing novels is something I did very much with and for Eva. Whenever I finished a chapter, she would read it and we would talk about it for some hours and she would give me excellent feedback. That era is over.” Faber explains: “I think I have written the things I was put on Earth to write. I think I’ve reached the limit.”
In an interview in The Scotsman in 2011, when Eva was still alive and reasonably well, and Faber was working on the what would become his last book, he says that “if it works, it will be the saddest book I’ve ever written”.
The novel is told in part through the letters written by a husband and wife across unimaginable distances when the husband, Peter, is sent to a newly colonized planet, to spread the word of God to the inhabitants there. An old-fashioned Christian missionary in a fantastically new setting – an alien world where rain swirls in semi-solid pattern swirls across the bleakly beautiful landscape. Back on earth, life is falling apart for his beloved wife, and the relationship begins to fray across the lightyears.
Talking with his friend and fellow novelist David Mitchell, Faber explains: “when your partner is dying of a disease that you don’t have and you know that you are going to outlive her, they are on a different planet. They’ve already cone somewhere where you can’t follow. The book ended up embodying that, even though it wasn’t planned.”
Knowing the backstory of the story it is impossible not to read Faber’s own love story into the fiction. It becomes a farewell, the story of separation, of grief, of the different journeys of the living and the lost. In this light, it is, certainly one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. On the other hand, in the tenderness of this very ordinary couple’s shared life – far more than in their religious faith, which often sounds self-deluded and more like wishful thinking than spiritual insight – lies something like happiness, something like hope, perhaps even some kind of tenuous redemption. It’s not much: the situation back on Earth is rapidly disintegrating, food stocks are running low, supermarket shelves lie empty, there is hoarding and looting and a rapid downward spiral as systems of law and order break down. No wonder the corporations are looking for new worlds to colonize: ours is all but used up. And you leave the book fearful and certain that the future is bleak for the star-dwellers. The missionary message paving the way for exploitation and destruction somewhere in the future beyond the final page. So redemption, if it is there at all, is to be found in the tiny spaces, the fleeting moments of human – and even non-human – connection, acts of kindness, love even, that remind us why we’re here.