His first hours on the base are a catalogue of strange new things: the green water that tastes of melon; the humid atmosphere that twirls and creeps like prying fingers beneath his clothes; the community of loners quietly engrossed in their various roles in establishing the colony. But Peter has not been recruited to attend to the spiritual needs of his fellow humans; his job is to satisfy the indigenous population’s thirst for what he calls the Bible and they “the book of strange new things”.
To the earthlings, the Oasans are disturbing creatures, despite their small and frail stature, shrouded in hooded robes of a fabric “disconcertingly like a bath towel” that intermittently reveal faces like twin foetuses “nestled head-to-head, knee to knee”. But, trusting in God and humbled by their openness to Christian the message, Peter easily overcomes his initial revulsion.
With his background as a homeless addict, Peter is less arrogant than the fictional missionary in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful The Poisonwood Bible, but he is nevertheless naive in not anticipating how much his contact with the Jesus Lovers (as the Oasans call themselves) would change him. He has promised to share his experiences with his wife (via an email delivery system called the Shoot) and, at least initially, longs for her communications from home. But, absorbed in the alien culture, Peter soon finds himself feeling detached from her reports from home which, with its sudden food shortages, collapse of large corporations and freak weather events, begins to sound to the reader like a world on the road to destruction. More eloquent in speech than in writing, and often both physically and mentally fatigued, Peter is unable to find either the words or the motivation to interpret his strange new life in a way that his wife can understand.
As I don’t read much sci-fi or speculative fiction (last year, I heartily enjoyed Station Eleven but lost patience with My Real Children), I was drawn to this novel by my admiration of the author rather than the plot. The Book of Strange Things is Michel Faber’s first novel in over twelve years, his first since The Crimson Petal and the White, a Dickensian masterpiece featuring a perfume baron and the two women in his life: his doll-like wife who has rejected their child and Sugar, a prostitute with a sharp mind and big ambitions. That novel too features missed communication: Agnes, completely untutored in matters of sex and the workings of her own body, is dreadfully ill-equipped for marriage; the emotionally neglected daughter, Sophie, doesn’t even think that she might inform her father that she needs new boots as the old ones are painfully cramping her toes.
The Book of Strange Things is a beautifully written and engaging novel that asks big questions about communication, community and what makes us human. How do we communicate our unique experience of the world? What happens to long-distance relationships? How do we get to know a person whose culture is so different to our own? Can we maintain our interest in, and empathy for, faraway suffering? And presumably, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, it’s about faith in higher powers.
If you’ve read so far, you might be wondering about the stairway in the title of this post; you might even recognise the reference to Charli Mills’ first flash fiction challenge of the new year. But before I post my flash, I need to justify the relevance of a staircase to this novel.
Some months ago, prompted to write about school, my flash featured a dual staircase at the entrance, adapted from a scene in my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails. It seems I might have a thing about staircases, as one also provides the setting for some unsavoury goings-on in my current WIP, but I wasn’t sure I could encapsulate it in a mere ninety-nine words. Then I remembered that Underneath, currently under submission, opens with a grisly staircase, of which this is a taster:
Cradling the box of provisions, I descend concrete staircase. Nudging the banister with my elbow for balance, I duck to avoid the underbelly of the stairs above. Reaching the bottom, I count the steps to the panelled door.
Placing the box on the floor, I put my eye to the peephole and flick the switch on the wall. The light beams on the mattress where you lie, immobile, camouflaged by the duvet, apart from one foot peeping seductively out the bottom.
The bolts squeal as I drag them into their casings. Shouldering the box, I shove through the door.
Thanks to Canongate books for my review copy of The Book of Strange New Things.
Have you ever successfully managed a long-distance relationship? Have you ever struggled to articulate your experience of immersion in different cultures? Can you identify with the missionary’s zeal?