It is said of some authors that they write essentially the same book over and over again—not a charge that can be levelled at Michel Faber, whose novels are each so different it can be hard to believe there’s a common author. His extraordinary début, Under the Skin (2000), is an original, daring literary novel with shades of horror and science-fiction which follows Isserley, a stranger in the Scottish Highlands with an obsessive interest in picking up (and picking off) burly male hitchhikers for her own ends.
Faber’s second novel was published two years later, although it was 20 years in the writing. The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) is an 800-page historical epic set in a minutely detailed Victorian London, but with a modern perspective on the social and political mores of the time—and lots and lots of sex. The unforgettable central character is Sugar, a sharp and resourceful prostitute who insinuates herself into the life of William Rackham, a wealthy perfumer. It was a publishing sensation, with rights sold in 28 countries, and it has sold over 210,500 through BookScan UK to date, with sales bolstered by a recent BBC adaptation starring Romola Garai and Chris O’Dowd.
Faber’s latest is billed as his first major novel since The Crimson Petal . . ., although he has published short story collections, novellas and The Fire Gospel (2008), a reimagining of the Prometheus story and part of the Canongate Myth series, in the interim.
The Book of Strange New Things (Canongate, October) opens with a parting; Peter Leigh is leaving not only his beloved wife Bea, but the Earth itself. Shadowy multinational USIC has founded a colony on a planet named Oasis, and has chosen Peter, a Christian missionary, to take the Word of God to the new world. Curiously though, it is not the human residents of Oasis that have requested a minister, but the indigenous population: the aliens. Peter discovers that the native Oasans have been served by two previous ministers, but both disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Why are they so desperate for another Christian missionary?
As with his earlier novels, Faber again shows his mastery of the red herring and the wrong turn, the reader’s expectations are subtly encouraged and then cleverly confounded. “I do that deliberately, obviously to keep people reading, but also because we’re so educated to be cynical that we are always waiting for the big reveal of the dark agenda,” he says. There will be no big reveals in this piece—suffice to say there are moments in the novel that made my stomach drop like a stone.
The incredible sulk
Faber explains that the seeds of the novel were sown in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a time when he became very disillusioned: “I was very dispirited and demoralised about what writers could possibly do in a world like ours. It put me off writing fiction for a very long time. I got very fed up with authors writing inspirational articles about the transformative power of fiction when it was very clear that fiction writers have absolutely no influence on what happens in the world.”
For a few years Faber was in a “sulk”, but by the time he could bring himself to think about writing again one idea stood out: “The only book that I could imagine myself writing at that point was a book that had no human beings. So I considered writing a book set on an alien planet that was entirely within the culture of the aliens, with no human beings, no tourists, no colonists, no visitors—purely the aliens.”
The original idea didn’t work, but The Book of Strange New Things grew out of his interest in “the alien”. Faber had begun work on the book when he received some terrible news: his wife Eva was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the plasma cells). The experience changed both Faber and his novel-in-progress: “It also became a book about the gulf between a husband and a wife who are on different planets. I think when you haven’t got terminal cancer and your partner does, you are really living on different planets, no matter how much you are trying to remain on the same one.”
In the novel Peter begins his mission with a joyful heart and his first letters home to Bea (they are able to communicate through a sort of email called “the Shoot”) describe his new surroundings, his USIC colleagues and his excitement at the prospect of working with the Oasans. His relationship with Bea, revealed through their correspondence, appears to be strong. But as Peter gets to know the Oasans, things start to change for Bea back on Earth and gradually the pressure on them starts to build.
The Book of Strange New Things grapples with the big questions; love and its limits, faith and how it is tested. Faber was brought up as a Baptist and, though he no longer believes, he remains “deeply and passionately interested in religion and what it does for people, and what happens to people when they don’t have it.” The atheist viewpoint of thinkers like Richard Dawkins may work for some he acknowleges, “but it is actually terrifying to live in a universe without any guiding principle or any entity looking after us,” Faber says. “It’s immensely scary.”
His fiction may have wildly different settings but Faber sees a common thread running through; “people who are living in different realities, thinking that they are inhabiting the same space. In The Crimson Petal . . . William and Sugar are nominally occupying the same room . . . but really they are in different universes within Victorian England. In Under the Skin Isserley and the men that she picks up and her fellow workers; they are all living in different worlds.”
“One of the things I keep coming back to in my fiction is how much people underestimate the degree to which they really are on a different planet from the person right next to them.”
Although The Book of Strange New Things is built with what Faber describes as science fiction architecture it is crucially not a book about aliens per se, but rather “a book about how alien we are from each other and how much of a gulf can grow between a man and a woman when they are physically separated and going through different things”.
In the novel there’s an early scene where Peter visits the prayer room at Heathrow and reads the visitors’ book before leaving for the US and his ultimate mission, something that Faber himself does every time he passes through an airport. He is always astonished, he says, by how many people have faith “and how childlike and vulnerable that faith is”.
“British fiction tends to have a very easy cynicism when it comes to matters of faith. There’s a lot of satire of religion and a lot of poking fun. I like a bit of satire as much as the next person but I’m more interested in what really goes on with people when they are in extremis, when they are at the limit, when they need something to hold onto and it’s not there. What can they find to hold onto? I think a lot of my fiction is trying to get at that.”
Formats £20 HB/£14.99 EB/£20 audio download
ISBN 9781782114062/ 4093/5373
Rights US (Crown Publishing), Canada, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden
Editor Francis Bickmore, Canongate
1960 Born in Holland
1967 Emigrated to Australia with his parents
1992 Moved to Scottish Highlands
2000 Debut novel Under the Skin, and short story collection Some Rain Must Fall
2002 The Crimson Petal and the White published
- Harriet Lane | "I've lost so much because of this autoimmune thing—not just some sight, but a really enjoyable career and a confident sense of the future"
- Lucy Strange | 'I think it’s so important not to underestimate readers of that age, the complexity of their inner world'
- Alex Pheby | 'I like to try things. I like to see how they work and see whether I can do them'
- Laura Barnett | ' I woke up thinking about whether the person that you end up with is necessarily the person you would have ended up with had you gone down a different path'
- Lawrence Norfolk | "I hadn’t realised how much I valued the publishing community of which I am a part"