Monday 9 December 2019

Evangelical tale of spreading the word of God to maggot-breeding aliens with 16 toes

The Book of Strange New Things; Michel Faber; Canongate, hdbk, 592 pages, £18.99

Anthony Cummins

In Under the Skin (2000), Michel Faber's first novel, a quadruped named Isserley is surgically transformed into a busty woman so she can drive around the Highlands abducting hitchhikers to process as food for export to her own civilisation back home. Faber doesn't explain where Isserley comes from, or how she wound up in Scotland, focusing instead on meatier questions, as grisly thrills modulate into a moving meditation on what it means to be human.

Faber's new book resumes his interest in aliens and adds to it his interest in religion (in his 2009 novella The Fire Gospel, a scholar discovers a forgotten account of Jesus's death). We follow Peter, a Christian minister recruited by a shadowy US corporation establishing a colony on another planet (Faber doesn't say where). His task there is to leave the air-conditioned safety of the base to spread God's word to the natives who give the colonists food in exchange for medicine.

With 16 toes, faces like conjoined foetuses, and voices akin to "a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete", the locals have learnt English from another pastor, now ominously Awol. Peter can't glean his predecessor's fate any more than he can distinguish between the seemingly sexless natives, who excrete where they stand and breed maggots from their own corpses (that's where that food they trade comes from).

In Under the Skin, dialogue is key: dramatic irony grows as Isserley tries to gauge through small talk whether her latest target has any family who'd call the police. Dialogue is central here, too, with poignant comedy in Peter's frustrated attempts to coax out what he believes is his congregation's latent humanity, narrowly conceived.

Misunderstanding also blights communication with his wife, a nurse who saved him from bygone days as a thieving drunk. Flush with the joy of evangelism, Peter can't see that the news from London is not good: there's mass flooding, Tesco's gone bust and we're at war with China.

Faber refuses to translate the hieroglyphs he uses to render the native language, which would have undermined what he has to say about difference and respect.

He writes the sort of novel you might press on a bookish teenager (I mean this as a compliment), entertaining but intent on making us kinder, more open. It's a great performance, and a mature one: where Under the Skin needed a car crash to bring matters to a close, here Faber leaves things more delicately poised, his offstage apocalypse making Peter's trip home scarier than the trip out.

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