If Michel Faber’s phenomenon-turned-bestseller-turned-miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White is the only fiction of his that you’ve ever read, his newest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, may feel like it’s come from a different author entirely. The Crimson Petal was set in Victorian London and followed the adventures of Sugar, a young, much sought-after prostitute known for her otherworldly bedroom tricks. The Book takes place at an undetermined date in the nearish future on a planet called Oasis, and chronicles the mission (both exploratory and religious) of a British preacher named Peter who has been sent to commune with the natives. The Crimson Petal managed to deftly make use of a floating, prodding narrator who spoke in the present-tense and was apt to pointedly remind readers not to grow distracted by secondary characters, or to stay focused on a particular conversation. The Book is linear and unflashy, with epistles back and forth between Peter and his wife, Bea, serving as the only interruptions in the narrative. The Book is also, comparatively, a quick read—it’s almost 500 pages shorter than The Crimson Petal.
Aliens, space travel, planet-colonization—The Book of Strange New Things feels poised to read like science fiction. Instead, it is a harrowing, wrenching work about the intricacies of married life—one made even more poignant by Faber’s pronouncement to The New York Times that he plans on making this novel, which is only his third, his last. Faber’s wife Eva died in July, just days before he handed in his final changes to the manuscript of The Book, and “those who work closely with Mr. Faber say that his decision to stop writing novels may be a manifestation of grief,” according to the Times.
If indeed Faber does retire from novel-writing, he’ll have left on the highest of notes. The Book of Strange New Things is certainly capable of achieving the same popular success as The Crimson Petal, and it is a bold and unexpected work of beauty.
A novel should stand or fall on its own, distinct from whatever we know about an author's life. Fitzgerald's well-known marital drama makes Tender is the Night a more compelling autobiographical artifact than The Great Gatsby, but it does not make it a better novel. Hemingway adapted aspects of his real life for both The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms (when didn't Hemingway do that, actually?)—but while the former enjoys a reputation as Hemingway's finest work, it is the latter novel that most readers find the most moving and compelling.
But there's nothing wrong with recognizing that the circumstances of an author's life can make a work more poignant. Henry James’s desperate love for his cousin Minnie Temple is the lifeblood that keeps The Wings of the Dove—a famously dense novel—alive. The torment Charlotte Brontë suffered over unrequited love pulses through Villette, the pseudo-biographical story of a teacher at a girls school in Belgium who falls passionately in love with a married fellow teacher. Understanding the isolation and despair Brontë felt when she was sent to teach (and send home money) at a similar school—and then the devastation of her own attachment to a certain M. Héger—elevates Villette from a middling novel to a fascinating, if problematic, one. Similarly, knowing that this was to be "the saddest thing I’d ever written," as Faber told the Times, and that Faber inserted the married couple's storyline after learning of his wife's terminal diagnosis, grants the epistles an added richness.
Peter, The Book’s protagonist, has been selected by a mysterious corporation called USIC to serve as their latest missionary to an outpost on the alien planet of Oasis, and is to spend an undetermined amount of time there, preaching God’s Word to the native population. The exact nature of the mission—Where will he live? How will he communicate with the natives? Why does USIC think a preacher is the best conduit?—is entirely unknown to Peter at the outset, and this tactic serves the reader well. We know only what Peter knows, when he knows it. Oasis, then, is as strange and wondrous to us as it is to him.
Meanwhile, Peter’s wife Bea remains behind on Earth; she has, for reasons unknown to the married couple, not been allowed to join his mission. Bea, at first, composes letters to her husband (sent through a type of intergalactic email called The Shoot) about the monotonies and tiny dramas of ordinary life—her nursing job, a parish family she’s trying to help through a rough patch, their cat Joshua. Peter’s dispatches back to Bea chronicle his first meeting with the natives, their “whitish pink walnut-kernel faces,” and “soft, reedy, asthmatic-sounding voices.” He explains their living habits, their seemingly primitive and yet startlingly advanced farming tactics and familial patterns, their soft, multicolored robes.
And so Peter’s most dearly held dream begins to come true—the Oasans hunger for Christ, they beg Peter to teach them about the Bible (or, as they call it, The Book of Strange New Things), he is welcomed into their community and helps them build a church. But civilization on Earth is rapidly collapsing. First supermarkets begin to run out of ordinary goods, like chocolate, explains Bea. Then freak weather events grow even more intense. A “large chunk” of North Korea is wiped out. There are mass riots in China. In isolation, the events sound eerily similar to real modern life. But as they keep coming in rapid succession, it’s clear that someone has pulled out the pin holding the world together. And so Peter is, implicitly, put in the position of deciding between the work he does for his God, and the love he has for his wife.
While Peter’s mission is ostensibly the pole around which the rest of the novel circulates, it’s the story of a marriage in crisis—a relationship stretched to the very limits—that resonates most clearly. The settlement on Oasis, the collapse of modern society on Earth—those are only mechanisms (albeit, extreme ones) keeping Peter and Bea from understanding one another, from operating in tandem, from working towards one another. It’s a storyline that could easily have grown hackneyed. But Faber’s sincerity keeps The Book honest, and his talent steers him away from cliché.
Selfishly, I hope The Book of Strange New Things isn't Faber's last novel—but even if it is, what a note to depart on.