The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sometimes a story about a book is enough to get me to read the book itself… and a Guardian profile, describing how Faber has decided this is his last book, and wrote it over a long period of time during which his wife died of cancer, and that he is an innovative writer that plays with different genres… all of that intrigued me enough to download it.
Yet at first I was not so engaged. I’m totally up for science fiction and dystopian fiction, and am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s forays into the future, and I thought the premise was interesting enough: a preacher recruited by a corporation to minister to an alien population near their new colony. But I couldn’t really grab onto something. I didn’t love the narrator and his faith, a reformed drug addict, pious and always preaching. The letters back and forth with his wife, worried about their cat (and I should have liked this part, being a cat-owner) were mundane, and the world falling apart that she describes a little too close to the last weeks of typhoons, floods and civil unrest around the world. I was a bit perturbed early on that many of the human characters are described first and foremost by the colour of their skin and their race upon first meeting them. I didn’t love the voice or narrative style.
What I was most interested in was the local inhabitants of the planet, and how their physicality and nature are slowly revealed. The descriptions of the new planet, its weather systems and how the colony is surviving… also: interesting. And there was certainly enough to keep me going until I found myself more and more immersed. The letters between husband and wife become much deeper, raising questions about how we are responsible to the ones we love, how to manage distance or not, how self-centred we can, what roles we play. I found myself feeling affection for the Oasans in their robes, each one of a different colour, and their odd language. And in the end, I was surprised at how touched I felt by the book, having entered a strange new world for the time of reading it.
Another few reviews on Goodreads take issue with an unfinished feeling at the end but it felt appropriate to me that a book that slowly opened itself to me would not come to neat conclusions.