When Michel Faber’s wife died after an illness it had an inevitable impact on his next and last book he tells Richard Fitzpatrick
Michel Faber’s wife, Eva, had always been his first reader. She died from cancer last summer. His latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which is his first in over 12 years, was published a few months after her death. When it came to writing it, Faber says her illness, which she contracted in 2008, altered the approach he took to the novel’s story.
It is a compelling read, and lives up to Faber’s plan to make it the most unusual, ambitious and saddest thing he has written. Its protagonist, a Christian minister, Peter Leigh, 33, signs up with a faceless American corporation, USIC, to spread the Gospel to the inhabitants on its alien colony, Oasis. He leaves his wife, Bea, behind in England for his mission.
“I got maybe three chapters of The Book of Strange New Things done before Eva was diagnosed,” says Faber. “It was going to be a book about a man who lives in an idealised, almost mystical world (in Peter’s case, his evangelistic mission on a distant planet; in my case, Art) and his wife who stays behind and deals with the mess of real life.
“It was going to be about many other things as well, but that was the essential emotional dynamic in it. Once Eva got sick, the book became much more about loss. When your partner has a terminal illness, it’s an opportunity for intensely increased intimacy, but on the other hand they’re travelling to an alien world, the world of chemotherapy and death.”
The indigenous people on Oasis are sexless, or so it appears. To look at their faces is like staring into “a pile of entrails”. They have reedy voices, their own language and the converts to Peter’s evangelical drive call themselves “Jesus Lovers”. They crave his stories from the Bible, which they rename The Book of Strange New Things, and, like the colonisers barracked on Oasis, are strangely lacking in sexuality, individuality and the hang-ups of needing to be someone special.
“In The Book of Strange New Things I look at what it would be like not to have that self-consciousness,” says Faber, “to be free of all those neuroses and vanities and vulnerabilities that we all have, which can be such a pain in the arse. The native population of Oasis are blessedly devoid of all that.
“The human personnel on the settlement are also exceptionally chilled-out specimens. It’s very relaxing and yet at the same time rather creepy, even disturbing. Once a person has the equanimity of a sheep or a bee, they aren’t human anymore. Maybe we need the dysfunction.” At the heart of the novel lies the love story between Peter and Bea. She’s left adrift in a world that is quickly unravelling amid biblical calamities.
A tsunami wipes out the Maldives. A volcano does for one of Guatemala’s cities. War is declared with China. There are food shortages and riots in the streets while Bea’s pregnancy – the result, she reckons, of their last rutting together on a layby en route to Heathrow Airport – has left her feeling acutely emotional and vulnerable.
They struggle to sustain their relationship light years away from each other, with only email-type messages to bridge the void. Misunderstandings abound in their communications with one another, and a frisson of sexual tension simmers between Peter and Grainger, one of the women at his base camp.
Peter’s memory of people back there starts to fade. Several puzzles gnaw at the reader, which keeps one hurtling through the novel’s 600 pages. Is Peter a dupe? What happened his predecessor, who disappeared a year earlier? What will become of Peter and Bea? The joy of reading novels, however, no longer excites Faber.
“The truth is that I don’t read fiction anymore,” he says. “Music is where I go for stimulation and consolation. My wife Eva was a great reader and she used to involve me in wonderful discussions of the books she was reading, so while she was alive I did retain some sort of grip on what fiction was being produced. But since she died I’ve drifted off somewhere else entirely.”
There have been several interesting chapters in Faber’s life. He was born in 1960. He grew up in The Hague, Netherlands, but moved to Melbourne, Australia when he was seven years old.
“According to my parents, I ran away from school on the first day because I was appalled by the fact that everyone there was speaking a foreign language. But kids learn fast. Within a few years I was conducting readings in the playground, entertaining kids with bits of novels I never finished.” He drifted to the UK in his twenties with his first wife but ended up sleeping rough on occasion, which brought its own adventures.
“I spent a surreal night under a bridge with a bunch of other strays,” he says. “I remember one guy who was trying to cheer us up by acting the fool. ‘What was Jesus’s last miracle?’ he challenged. No one responded. We were too cold and weary. He spread his arms wide, to mime Jesus nailed to the cross.Then he swung one hand down to scratch his crotch before replacing it on the cross.”
Faber went back to Australia but returned to Britain with Eva, his second wife, and her two sons in 1993. They settled in the Scottish Highlands. He worked as a nurse until Eva persuaded him to write full time.
His novels have been marvels. They include Under the Skin, which was adapted into the recent hit movie starring Scarlett Johansson, and The Crimson Petal and the White, which the BBC filmed in a four-part series with Gillian Anderson, Chris O’Dowd and Richard E Grant among the cast.
Sadly there will be no more Michel Faber novels. I asked him, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett’s last line in The Unnamable, why he won’t “go on”.
“I would be astonished if I ever wrote another novel. I knew when I was writing The Fire Gospel that it was the second-last and I knew when I started this one that it was the last. It’s a strong body of work but it’s enough, and I hope you agree that The Book of Strange New Things is a high note to end on. As for the Beckettian challenge of going on when you feel you can’t, that applies more to life than art, I think.”
Michel Faber will be at the West Cork Literary Festival, 3pm, Sunday, 12 July, The Maritime Hotel, The Quay, Bantry, Co Cork. For more information, visit: www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie.
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