Lost on Planet God

The Iowa Review - - CARMEN MARIA MACHADO - Car­men maria machado

A Re­view of Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things

Be­fore he be­gins the space mis­sion that will com­prise al­most the en­tirety of Michel Faber’s new­est novel, The Book of Strange New Things, Peter Leigh’s wife Beatrice begs him to pull the car over to the side of road. She wants to have sex with him one last time be­fore he boards a plane at Heathrow and leaves her. Peter balks. They’d had a lovely fi­nal day of love­mak­ing and to­geth­er­ness—all of it so right— the day be­fore. “You’re won­der­ful,” he says hes­i­tantly, stalling. “I don’t want to be won­der­ful,” she tells him. “I want you in­side me.” In many ways, this scene—star­tling, erotic, and over as quickly as it be­gins—is the em­bod­i­ment of the ap­proach­ing, sprawl­ing nar­ra­tive, a per­fect dio­rama of the strain and ten­sions to come. Faced with her hus­band’s long ab­sence, Beatrice’s sex drive kicks in, mud­dled with love and anx­i­ety and miss­ing him even be­fore he’s gone—a deeply hu­man re­sponse. But Peter stub­bornly clings to the sym­bol of their “last day,” the woman next to him—on him, around him—be damned. And af­ter it’s over, Peter is bun­dled onto an air­plane, flown to the U.S., and then launched an un­fath­omable dis­tance away from her.

A pri­vate com­pany has set­tled a planet they call Oa­sis. It is hab­it­able, with wet and liv­ing but breath­able air akin to a rain­for­est’s, and a stripped-down land­scape that re­sem­bles the emp­ti­est parts of Utah. Its in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion—re­ferred to as res­i­dents of “Freak­town” by some and, more re­spect­fully, as “Oasans” by oth­ers—have re­quested a Chris­tian min­is­ter. And so the com­pany has hired Peter, a deeply religious man with a trou­bled past: al­co­holism, drug ad­dic­tion, and crime, all of which he aban­doned when he met the com­pas­sion­ate Chris­tian nurse who later be­came his wife. He has the fer­vor of a con­vert and a fawn-like naïveté all his own. The en­gi­neers, sci­en­tists, and med­i­cal per­son­nel at Oa­sis are friendly but oddly muted, with the ex­cep­tion of a woman named Grainger with whom Peter de­vel­ops a cau­tious, mer­cu­rial friend­ship. With its use of last names, its in­tense group work­outs, and its flat­tened emo­tions, the at­mos­phere is al­most mil­i­tary (“It’s a bit like the army,” Grainger tells

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