For the Joy of Reading: The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber does not need any help from me in ensuring that his books are brought to the attention of the reading public. But there are some books that are so good, where the writing is so beautifully crafted, so poetic and where the story is so extraordinarily well written that they cry out for people to say how good they are. And this is one of those books.

On a personal note, I first read this book when I was living in a small, remote village called Hobeni in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.  I was working at the Donald Woods Foundation, helping to set up a library and archive for the benefit of the local community.   I was there for five months in what was for me a completely new environment.   This book therefore had many resonances for me, assuring me of the truth that lies at its heart.

It is the story of Peter, a Christian missionary,  going to another planet to spread the word of God to a receptive, indigenous community of the new planet on which he finds himself.   Or, to be more accurate, the ones that he meets are receptive, even enthralled by The Book of Strange New Things   And he only meets a few.   Peter has all the difficulties of communication, having to learn a new language so that he can tell his new flock the Bible stories.   And there is also the fact that he is not the first missionary, and that his predecessor has disappeared into the wilds.   This part of the story is about enthusiasm, adapting to a new way of life, and making new friends.   In a way this is a story of hope.

But Peter has had to leave his wife, Bea, behind of Earth.   And, on Earth, society is collapsing.   Peter and Bea are in contact with each other because the technology allows it, but their marriage begins to fall apart as they fail to understand what is happening to the other.   And it is through this process of disintegration that we learn how they came together, what they needed from each other, and their importance in each others’ lives.   And this is a story of loss and bereavement, of coping and failing to cope, of despair and of trying to find ways through despair.

This only gives you some idea of the complexities of the story, and of the deep humanity with which Michel Faber writes.   He not only engages your sympathy as a reader, but he uses the story to tell you something about the human condition, that goes to the very heart of our being as individuals and as members of a community.   It helps to explain the Xhosa saying that we are individuals because we are part of, dependent on, our community.   So this is a story about culture and community.

Faber also manages to create a believable, strange culture for the inhabitants of the planet being colonised.   And it does not give away any part of the story to say that the multi-planetary company that is funding the missionary effort is an imperialist, colonialist company seeking a new location because Earth is disintegrating.  [I, of course, am using a very political shorthand for what Michel Faber describes elliptically through the boredom, irritation and cynicism of those staffing the headquarters on the planet.]   This is also a story about the imperative of survival.

It is through the power of his storytelling, the beauty of his language and, most of all, through his compassion and humanity that Michel Faber keeps you rooted in the reading of this book.    And you will not regret it.

 

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