His urine was dark orange. Alarmed, he filled a glass with water from the tap. The liquid was pale green. Clean and transparent, but pale green. Stuck to the wall above the sink was a printed notice: COLOR OF WATER IS GREEN, THIS IS NORMAL AND CERTIFIED SAFE. IF IN DOUBT, BOTTLED WATER & SOFT DRINKS ARE AVAILABLE, SUBJECT TO AVAILABILITY, FROM USIC STORE, $50 PER 300ml.
Peter stared at the glass of green liquid, parched but wary. All those stories of British tourists drinking foreign water while on holiday and getting poisoned. Delhi belly and all that. Two reassuring Scripture quotations came to his mind, ‘Take no thought for what ye shall drink’ from Matthew 6:25 and ‘To the pure, all things are pure’ from Titus 1:15, but those were clearly meant for other contexts. He looked again at the placard for the bottled alternative: $50 PER 300ml. Out of the question. He and Bea had already discussed what they would do with the money he earned on this mission. Pay off their mortgage. Rebuild the nursery room of their church so the children had more light and sunshine. Buy a van adapted for wheel-chairs. The list went on and on. Every dollar he spent here would cross something worthwhile off it. He lifted the glass and drank.
Peter is a missionary on the trip to end all trips, he will minister to the indigenous people of humanity’s first off world settlement, Oasis. Yes, aliens. He leaves his wife, Bea behind in their home just outside London and despite only sketchy information about the company he is now employed by, or the nature of his role on Oasis, takes a leap of faith. While he is away though, he and Bea grow distant, understandable given the mother of all long distance relationships they are now engaged in. Bea’s circumstances on Earth become frightening and tenuous as even as Peter’s mission with the Oasan people proceeds with unexpected ease. Suddenly Peter, a reformed alcoholic in his early thirties, has found a place he connects with on a spiritual level. But his wife at home is suffering and their relationship crumbles.
The front most of the Oasans turned to face his people, raise his arms high and gave a signal.
“Amaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. . .” they sang, sweet and high and pure. The vowel floated for five, ten seconds without pause, a grand communal exhalation, sustained so long that Peter interpreted it as an abstract sound, unrelated to language or melody. But then it incorporated a consonant – albeit an unidentifiable one – and drifted in pitch: “….siiiing graaaaase! Howsweeeet a souuuuund that saaaaaaved a wreeeeech liiiiike meeeeeee!”
In synchronised obedience to an energetic hand-gesture from the frontmost Oasan, they all stopped at once. There was a huge intake of breath, a seventy-strong sigh. Peter fell to his knees, having only just recognised the hymn: the anthem of fuddy-duddy evangelism, the archetype of Salvation Army naffness, the epitome of everything he had despised when he’d been a young punk snorting lines of speed off piss-stained toilet lids, of everything he dismissed as stupid when he was liable to wake in a pool of congealed vomit, of everything he considered contemptible when he was stealing money from prostitutes’ handbags, of everything he laughed off as worthless when he himself was a toxic waste of space. I once was lost, and now I’m found.
The conductor gestured again. The choir resumed.
Faber has described The Book of Strange New Things as his last novel. His wife Eva suffered terminal cancer during its creation and died as he was adding the final touches to the manuscript. Every page, every word, of this novel speaks of Faber’s talent. His understated way with words, his ability to make even the longest read, full of scripture and faith which is not my cup of tea in the slightest, completely accessible. A page turner. But it also speaks to his love of his wife and his loss. It’s a novel about communication, about distance, about faith. But most of all it’s a novel about love, romantic love, brotherly love, filial love, God’s love. How far would you go for the one you love. It turns out Peter would go to the end of the Earth and back. Even without his Bible, his book of Strange New Things.
This novel is 600 odd pages long. The kind of novel I would never accept for review, if you read my review policy page you’ll notice I avoid religious everything, besides which it’s just too long to complete in my three week time frame. But I raced through it in two days. When it ended I wanted more. The early parts frustrated me because why would Peter accept such a shadowy mission? Why is Bea left without access to her bank account because she was not the “account holder”, why can’t USIC help her through this. Why are the native Oasans so hungry for religious instruction? But I had to put my faith in Faber, and Faber delivered, albeit in mysterious ways. I truly hope he continues to publish, but somehow I feel that’s an unkind request of him, that the world needs his novels more than he does. The Book of Strange New Things is a subtle read, like its protagonist it seems unassuming, totally without guile. And, in some ways it is. But there’s a sting in this tale that isn’t as simple as you might think, like the withdrawal from a drug addiction, unexpected and powerful. Highly recommended.
The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber: five stars.
Read it when: you’ve forgotten the pleasure of losing yourself to a master novelist.