the book of strange new things
My boyfriend is in love/lust with Scarlett Johansson.
Which means that in the last few months alone (despite actually not really going to the movies all that often in the last year), we've seen The Avengers, Don Jon, Her, Lucy, Chef (though, admittedly, I saw Chef on my own because obviously it's my sort of movie and he assumed it was too much of a chick-flick for him), and, of course, Under the Skin. Although I've tried to balance out this common relationship trait of going-to-see-movies-primarily-because-your-loved-ones-lusts-after-the-actor-in-them with (only two!) of my own Liam Neeson movies, I haven't really minded because I do like Johansson, though perhaps with slightly less enthusiasm.
So Under the Skin, though I must assume the movie doesn't really compare to the book, sort of brought Michel Faber back on my radar. I've always been interested in reading his best known (to date) book, The Crimson Petal and the White. I have thus far failed to do so, which means that The Book of Strange New Things is actually my very first Faber novel (and, apparently, his last).
I didn't have many expectations when Random House provided an early copy. I knew it was about a Christian missionary (which gave me very slight pause but it's only an element, not the purpose) who travels to a newly discovered planet to spread the word amongst the natives (or "freaks" as every other human there would have them be). I was nervous about all this, since the setting for most people apparently characterizes this as science fiction and although I've no beef against science fiction it's not usually my first choice of genre. But I chose to read The Book of Strange because of Faber's reputation as a writer and because the general tone of the relationships in the novel put forth in the synopsis seemed interesting.
I've seen criticisms about those relationships, ranging from perceived undertones of racism (on part of the author and his characters), and a general dislike towards the protagonist, Peter, because of his treatment of his wife and general disregard of her concerns. While I certainly understand these criticisms and can side with them to a minor extent (I also almost hated Peter during some of his interactions with his wife - via emails, essentially), as a reader, I was very much in the head and point of view of Peter. I felt like any perceived suggestions of racism or imperialism were likely intended on Faber's part (and don't get me started on reviewers projecting intentionally created traits on the characters by an author as a personal trait and failure of the author himself), and the relationship between Peter and his wife, Bea was, for me, the entire focus and point of the novel.
Sure, we have a character exploring alien worlds, but for Peter, ultimately, this story is about his relationship with Bea: why they are together at all (whether she is a savior or his wife), whether their love can survive their separation, or whether they can even be together at all if their Christian faith falls away from either or both of them.
I was baffled when I finished the novel and read some other reviews about it and saw another reader complain that they felt the relationship between Bea and Peter was flat and unconvincing. I read as quite the opposite; I loved the strength and deep weaknesses there, and I felt like I could absolutely relate to the concept of not really fully knowing (certain parts) of oneself until you feel them reflected in a partner:
He would notice the length of his hair only when it started to fall in his eyes, whereupon he would ask Bea to cut it for him; he was only reminded of the deep scar between his eyebrows when she'd stroke it tenderly with her fingers after lovemaking, frowning in concern as though she'd noticed for the first time that he was injured. The shape of his chin only became real to him when he was nesting it in the soft hollow of her shoulder. His neck materialized inside her palm.
<potential (minor) spoiler in this next paragraph>
This novel is one of those with a somewhat ambiguous ending, but also one of those ambiguous endings I am, for whatever reason, okay with. I often dislike such endings because it feels to me that the author creates a narrative on which they ultimately give up, or fail to create a resolution, and so leave it hanging out there. This ending, however, feels like one of those which the author provides adequate sign posts with which I, as the reader, either am happy to take as the implied ending or even feel like it's the ending he also wants it to be, and so I am content. I also feel like another reader could walk away with a different perception of what happens next, but my anticipated resolution is concrete enough that I'm okay with that.