The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel FaberThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Published by Crown Publishing Group on October 28th 2014
Source: Publisher
Pages: 512
Buy from IndieBound

 

After years preaching his faith on Earth, Peter Leigh is hired to join the ranks of a strange corporation, based on a newly discovered planet called Oasis, and serve as the Christian pastor to the native population. The mission forces Peter to leave behind his wife Bea, who grows increasingly distant as life on Earth becomes unstable and Peter loses himself among the Oasans.

The Book of Strange New Things starts with a farewell drive filled with uncertain conversations and fumbling passion that wonderfully establishes the novel’s central relationship. The uncertainty builds throughout the early part of the novel, as Peter’s journey to and initial exploration of Oasis reveals more details about both the company that hired him and the population he is intended to serve.

Unfortunately, the intensity begins to die out as The Book of Strange New Things pushes on. While I certainly understand the need to establish a clear vision of the planet Oasis, readers are constantly trapped in a repetitive back and forth between Peter’s life among the Oasans and time on the corporation’s compound, dotted with epistolary exchanges with Bea. Though these exchanges become highlights, as the couple’s relationship is the true heart of the novel, the cycle soon feels like a chore propelled only by the potential reward of piecing together unanswered questions. It’s almost as if Faber expects our anticipation to stand in for pacing and plotting through nearly two-thirds of the book.

The endpoint of that anticipation is where The Book of Strange New Things finally fell apart. Perhaps it was the early buzz or the rave reviews, but I held on through the drudgery of the book’s middle in hopes I would be challenged and faced with big questions, much as I was with Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Though the Oasans’ reason for seeking Christianity is an interesting surprise, I found almost everything else revealed by the novel’s end to be predictable, the questions posed uninspiring and those ignored off-putting*. While the combination of sci-fi and literary fiction is a refreshing one, I think it has unfairly encouraged many to forgive the novel’s weaknesses and praise ideas that might otherwise fall flat.

 

*I’m being intentionally vague in hopes of avoiding spoilers for those who haven’t yet read, but I’d be interested in discussing further (with spoiler warnings) in the comments with those of you who have.

  • Sarah Says Read

    Aww, how disappointing! I liked The Sparrow a lot and was hoping this one would be even better. I’ll still give it a try, but… hmph.

    • I think my love for The Sparrow could be part of the reason why this was such a letdown for me. My mind didn’t feel anywhere near as twisty as it did when I shut those pages. I’ve heard from several people that love both, though, so I hope it works better for you!

  • I’m sorry this never picked up for you. I haven’t read it, but the blurb never really appealed to me…now I will know to ignore the hype! Thanks for an honest and thoughtful review.

    • I think the only reason it really called to me was because it sounded so similar to The Sparrow, which I loved. Didn’t end up working out quite that well.

  • Gah! I had such high hopes for this one, but I’ve seen similar reviews about its weaknesses elsewhere, too.

    • I feel like I’ve seen mostly glowing reviews, so I’m glad I’m not alone in finding it somewhat lacking.

  • How disappointing! :( Mary Doria Russell’s blend of sci-fi and literary was so spot-on, I think it’s totally fair to use that reading experience as a litmus test for others.

    • Right? The blend of genres was actually really smooth in this one, but I just felt very…”that’s it??” at the end. A pretty different experience than reading The Sparrow.

  • I’m sorry to hear this didn’t come together for you. I just started reading it and am enjoying it so far, but now I’m nervous!

    • I really enjoyed the beginning, but after Peter’s initial contact with the Oasans it began to get really repetitive for me…for about 200 pages or so. Most of the reviews seem to think otherwise, so I hope it ends up being a good read all the way through for you.

  • All right, I’m adding The Sparrow to my TBR.
    Your review is spot-on but you know we agreed about this book. It never “happened” for me and, at best, I attributed the sense of ennui and disconnection to his personal life at the time but it meant the work does not stand on its own.

  • It sounds like the novel needed to be edited or cut down, eh? Perhaps the middle drudgery. I’ll be forewarned if I pick this one up.

  • Beth

    Man, that is so disappointing. I was so looking forward to reading this one. It has been getting many rave reviews so maybe it’s a good thing your review was on the other end of things. Perhaps now when I read it I won’t have super high expectations and will be able to enjoy it more? I don’t know. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • I wish I had seen a few more balanced reviews before reading, so hopefully it makes your experience a little better!

  • Deb

    This was a book I was wondering about, so I’m glad I read your review. If it’s not as good as The Sparrow, probably not worth a read!

  • Hm. Yeah, The Sparrow was the book I immediately thought of when I learned what the plot was of this one. And The Sparrow would be a hell of a book to live up to. I’ll try to clear my mind of that comparison before I read this, although I don’t know how successful that will be…

    • I was trying realllllly hard not to compare, because you’re right that it’s not fair. The more I’ve thought about it, I think part of the problem for me was that this one is so centered in Christian ideas where The Sparrow is more about the idea of God in general. As an agnostic I reject many Christian ideas outright, but can have big internal debates over morality and God.

    • I also thought of The Sparrow as soon as I read the description of this one, but I think you’re right that it works probably be better to try not to compare them!

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  • Chrisbookarama

    Oh thank you for posting this! The more I think about this book, the more annoyed I get.

  • I’m sorry to hear that this wasn’t as good as people say it is! It’s gotten so much hype, so I guess I just assumed it was amazing. I wonder if some of its dragging as it went on had to do with his wife dying while he wrote it? But I guess I don’t know if it happened while he wrote it or while it was being edited or even after all that. I definitely won’t go out and buy this one, but I might check it out at the library at some point.

    • Actually, I think the parts between Peter and his wife were some of the strongest (the few parts of the book I really enjoyed), and knowing about Faber’s wife while reading, I could see it in those sections. Everything else is what seemed to drag for me.There are many people who seem to really enjoy it, so I think picking it up from the library is a great idea.

  • Oh my, I’m SO curious about what you found off-putting! Still up for a spoiler-y discussion?

    • I almost wish I had written a spoilery review, because there was something really big that bothered me and now I can’t remember. I do know that I found Peter to be racist and sexist, and whatever…that’s fine if it’s part of his character, but was frustrated that it was never touched on at any point. Overall, I just thought the book was too on the nose (in terms of strict Christianity), which didn’t allow for bigger questions to be asked, and poorly horribly plotted

      • Yeah, there was definitely a lot of unnecessary racial description going on that I wasn’t sure what to make of!

        I guess my focus ended up being more on the disintegration of his relationship, with the dissolving of his faith being a parallel but less interesting/important thread, so the rigid adherence to scripture didn’t bother me as much. Weirdly enough (please don’t hate me!), I read The Sparrow a few years ago and only found it to be fine, not fantastic, which leaves me wondering if I need to go back and re-read me some Russell.

        I wouldn’t call Strange New things a favorite (though I paired the reviews, I ultimately preferred Station Eleven as a book), but it does sound like I got more out of it to think about than it ended up giving you.