The Book of Strange New Things
Written by Michel Faber
Review by Jarad Johnson
This is a book that I picked up on a whim when I was at the library last week. I had heard very good things about it, and I decided to give it a try. Going into the book, I knew it was a science fiction story about a pastor who travels to another world to preach to the native population on that planet while Earth descends into chaos. This did not sound like it was something I would enjoy, but several reviews said it wasn’t a novel about religion, so I decided to try it anyway.
The premise, I suppose, is an interesting one: A devout but un-abrasive preacher leaves his wife to travel to another planet to minister to the native population. Of course, that sounded a lot like Colonialism to me, but I trudged on, willing to wait for the author’s take. The native people have an enthusiastic, but simplified, understanding of Christianity. As time goes on, the pastor grows distant from his wife, with whom he communicates through something similar to email, and grows more connected to the native people. Chaos erupts on earth: tsunamis, floods, massive parts of continents are destroyed, governments collapse, and his wife’s faith begins to waver, while he becomes more involved in his ministry. I was disappointed with the plot. The arc of the novel didn’t do much for me, and I felt like it was moving towards something and never quite got there. Much of the book is about nothing, and that is what the characters often do. There are loads of descriptions of the characters doing tedious, everyday things regularly interspersed with religious fervor. A novel that I had that many people are finding meaning in was, for the most part, devoid of meaning for me, although this is largely because I find the narrative arc extremely important to my enjoyment of a book. The narrative arc of this book was slow with all of the chaos and potential for interest light years away on the failing planet earth.
Of course, some readers see it as a narrative work of philosophy, perhaps with more of a story than a disguised philosophy text like Sophie’s World, but philosophical narrative. The book does reflect on what effects religion and philosophy have on the soul, what religious people care about or worse yet, what they don’t care about.
What stood out to me the most about the book was the faith of the pastor and his thick veneer of piety, which serves to distance him from reality. He can only offer vague messages about how God is in control and have faith, instead of actually acknowledging and sympathizing with people’s suffering. For example, because of all of the catastrophic events that are occurring on earth, and because of the horrific death of a beloved pet, his wife denounces her faith. Without realizing it, his faith is only self-serving, and limits his ability to understand and empathize with other people.
The purpose of the novel is not to spread Christianity or even to cast it in a positive light. However, it does offer an insight into the mind of a person of faith, and the distance that can be caused by that very faith. The book also explores how much relationships can be tested by both mental and physical distance.
Still, I found that the story was not intriguing enough to me to carry the themes. There is not much to say about the native people unfortunately; they are peaceful and kind, but I felt that they were entirely underdeveloped. Not much happens when he is ministering to them, except that the preacher becomes part of their community; he witnesses a birth, a death, gets to know members of his congregation. But there is little conflict, no challenge to the authority of the minister or the religion he represents. There are certainly stories that can carry philosophical themes well or create tension with slight nuances of emotion. I didn’t feel that this was one of them. The fact that the author chose to set this story on the more peaceful planet, while all the turmoil takes place at a safe distance just didn’t work for me.
This novel covers a lot of ground: new worlds, climate catastrophe, marital relationships, faith, all strings of a perhaps-great-plot that led to nowhere. It felt unfinished, which might mean that there is a sequel on the way, but I feel no great need to read it. On the level of story, which is the heart of why I read, I found this novel disappointing.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!