The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things: A Novel - Michel Faber

(I got a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

At first I thought I'd rate this book higher: its beginning as well as premise were quite catchy, and I was fairly intrigued at what Peter, the main character, found on planet Oasis, as well as to what would happen with Beatrice, how they'd keep in contact, whether their relationship would hold, and so on.

There are very strong moments in it, especially when contrasting Peter's privileged experience to Bea's day-to-day life. (The fact that she lived in Great Britain, that the problems she mentioned happening there were connected to places and brands I do actually know, allowed me to connect more personally with her experience.)

However, two things turned to be a definite let-down for me. The first was insidious enough that I didn't noticed it in the beginning, but it kept creeping back: regular allusions to other people in terms of skin colour and of characteristics that smacked of a certain... narrow-mindedness, to say the least. I don't meab skin colour as simply descriptive, but as judgmental. For instance, a nurse from Guatemala is several times compared to an ape, and not in a shiny manner:

Nurse Flores spoke up again, her simian face unexpectedly illuminated with sharp intelligence.

(Other occurrences include her "monkey face" and "simian fingers".)

I also found that gem, which I don't even deem deserving any comment at this point:

She was heterosexual despite her butch appearance.

For a while, I wondered if this was part of a process regarding Peter's character, as hints of his changing, but I'm not so sure, because it clearly didn't fit with his acceptance of the Oasans, who were so much more different. Although at times he does come off as pretty judgmental—especially when women are concerned—and didn't help to make me like him:

Her face betrayed no emotion, although her lips twitched once or twice. Maybe she wasn’t a strong reader, and was tempted to mouth the words?

Clearly no one would ever mouth a word while reading for any other reason than struggling with the text. And, once again, it's about a woman.

Peter didn't strike me as particularly likeable anyway

It didn’t matter, for the moment, that she misjudged him. She was overwhelmed, she was in distress, she needed help. Rightness or wrongness was not the point.

Yes, poor little misunderstood preacher, in his paradise light-years from Earth, with his mission of evangelising people who've been welcoming him with open arms, while his distressed wife struggles with worse problems and calls him on his bullshit—sorry, "misjudges" him. Not that Bea's so much better, considering one thing she did in his back. And she has her prissy moments of I'm-so-much-better-than-you when she describes how her hospital "gets the dregs", i.e. people who don't have the means to get private health insurance.

So while I expected a story that'd show me the struggles of a couple trying to stay united despite the distance, and would focus as much on both parties, I got a bleak reminder about how human beings, even (especially?) the ones who preach love, can sometimes be the worst. Which, in itself, is actually brilliant writing. Just... not what I would've wanted to read, not now. And not with the constant lingering doubt: were those the characters' views, or the author's?

I was also not impressed with the ending: too open for such a story. Too many threads left loose. As if the author had become bored with his story, and decided to let it hang there.

Clearly there were beautiful moments in this novel, that can make you feel like you're really "with the characters", but the other problems kept distracting me so much that this read ended up being more tedious than pleasant.