The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber

This 2014 work is a strange novel, and a fascinating one. It offers a challenge to one’s imagination and a challenge to one’s faith. It is the story of a Christian pastor, Peter Leigh, and his religious wife, Bea. They meet in a hospital, after he was injured in a fall while trying to escape after a robbery. She is his nurse. Love develops between them, as she motivates him to forego his criminal past and turn to religion, just as she had. And theirs becomes a love that will sustain them throughout this book.

But their religious faith raises a major question. For it is challenged by the separate worlds they will encounter, separate worlds that they choose together, certain that their love will survive their separation and their mutual belief that Peter will succeed in bringing the word of God to a distant land.

Indeed, to a far distant land, to the planet Oasis, in a galaxy far away. This planet is being explored and cultivated by an enigmatic corporation called USIC. And here is where author Faber challenges one’s imagination. For while this is serious fiction, it is also science fiction. Peter encounters a world of endless vistas without vegetation, with long days and nights, with unique rain squalls, and with an unusual white flower that is converted by the mysterious, robed Oasans, into food and materials.

Peter is sent to this world by USIC to replace a former missionary. He is to bring the message of Christ to the local population that is already fervently Christian. These Oasans welcome Peter and clamor for more religious instruction. His major resource is the King James Bible, which they call, in their language, The Book of Strange New Things.

The Oasans are looked down upon by the employees of the base settlement that has been established on this distant planet by USIC. They have been told to give Peter anything he needs, because this will further their relationship with the Oasans who provide their food. But while they assist him, they do not take to this new resident who does not share their practical view of this new planet. Only one does, his guide, a woman pharmacist, Alex Grainger. But while an emotional charge develops between the two, they both are careful to avoid deeper emotional ties.

For much of the novel, Peter and his distant wife Bea share messages of mutual support regarding both their love and the importance of Peter’s spiritual mission. But then reality enters, influencing them both. Back on earth, natural disasters occur and society begins to break down. Bea reports these, and slowly we realize they are challenging her faith in God. She also feels deserted by Peter, as she attempts to survive in a disintegrating world over which neither she nor anyone on earth has control.

Peter is troubled by the situation back home and its effect on her, but is more focused on his own situation, his own commitment to his mission with the mysterious Oasans and their need for spiritual support. Gradually, we realize the fervent and sincere faith of this couple is being challenged, both on earth and on this distant planet, and one wonders whether their mutual faith will survive. Where, in other words is this work of fiction headed? In fact, I began to speculate if the positive reception of this work was a reflection of a literary world that seldom relates to religious themes.

One of the achievements of this novel is the vividness of the confrontation between two civilizations, as experienced by Peter. He and the Oasans take a different approach to their faith. They are more accepting of faith; he is more challenged by it. He has also not experienced a faith like theirs, a faith so undemanding, so compatible with their spiritual needs. Nor has he met beings like them, beings with no recognizable characteristics, not even a recognizable face. He ends up identifying them based on the slightly different colors of the robes they wear. Another achievement is the unity with which Peter and Bea act at the beginning of the novel, and then their separate concerns as the reality on earth changes her life and the reality he confronts on Oasis distracts him from the problems she is facing back home.

The spiritual evolution of this novel concerns, initially, the adversity back on earth. These catastrophic events suggest that the end of the world is coming. The characters do not conclude this, but the author raises the suggestion in a passing paragraph shortly after I wondered about this possibility myself. But unasked is whether the end of the world also means the end of this distant galaxy, and all human life there as well. Or is this is distant civilization being cultivated by USIC to become a haven from earth’s destruction? That is, are the native Oasans to perish along with the humans among them? This is a religious/spiritual issues that the novel does not raise.

Indeed, there are no answers here to the issue of faith. Faber even suggests the Oasans mistakenly believe in Christ because He does not die, and think belief in Him will also save them from death. In a sense, the author comes up with a religious conclusion that has it both ways. There is one environment in which religious faith continues, and one environment in which it does not. My problem is that I was not convinced by its explanation of why in one environment it does not: “The holy book…had one cruel flaw: it was not very good at offering encouragement or hope to those who weren’t religious. ‘With God nothing shall be impossible,’ proclaimed Luke, and that message…now turned itself over like a dying insect, and became ‘Without God, everything shall be impossible.’ What use was that?”

The survival of faith depends on the reality men face? Is that truly an argument against faith? Or is it an argument reflecting the weakness of man? Reflecting a certain despair. Where is man’s perseverance? Yes, one can pray in such circumstances, but why the insistence that God must respond—or one cannot believe in Him?

This work certainly make me interested in reading more of Faber. Because of the credibility of his strange world, the reality of his characters, and his fearless use of a popular genre. I only wish he had given more answers here. For example, to the fate of Peter and Bea. Or is this effort he spent ten years on also setting the stage for a sequel? (November, 2016)

The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich

There are three stories in one in this 2005 novel, of which the first story is the most intriguing. All are interesting, however, and all are built around an old, magic Indian drum. The first story is the most interesting because it focuses on a human story, not the story of that magic drum.

It is narrated by Faye Travers, of Indian descent, who is living with, and continually adjusting, to her mother. She is an estate appraiser in New Hampshire. I found her story the most interesting because she beautifully expresses the uncertainties in her life as well as her appreciation of the pleasures of both nature and human contact. (Those pleasures being augmented by the beautiful style of the author.) Faye becomes especially interesting when she breaks her profession’s rules and steals the drum from an estate she is evaluating. She becomes even more interesting when she feels guilty about the theft, for this compounds an already existing sense of guilt, about what she thinks is a hidden love affair, as well as her responsibility for the death of a sister who fell from a tree when both were children.

Indeed, that sister’s death hangs in her memory throughout this novel. Was she truly responsible? As she struggles with her possible guilt, the reader gradually learns not only more about that fall, but more about the type of person Faye was then, and now is. We also become more aware of the presence of death in this novel, how it hangs over everyone’s actions, especially when innocent lives are lost.

Faye’s uncertainty about the love affair with a local sculptor, Kurt Krahe, brings her particularly alive. She tries to hide it from her mother. When his daughter is tragically killed, as are two other daughters in this novel, she cannot hide her compassion—undoubtedly prompted by the memory of her own sister’s young death—and this helps bring him relief from his pain. But when he will not follow up with a commitment to Faye, she backs off.

The second story begins when Faye returns the drum to its original Indian owners out west. There, Bernard Shaawano, an Ojibwe, relates the second story. It is about how the drum came to be: the result of a passionate adultery, ravenous wolves, treachery, revenge, and a ghostly return from the dead. Whereupon, an Indian mourning ritual and a ghostly presence produces the drum and gives it healing powers. Overall, this is a tale of powerful emotions from the Indian past that scald the page with its intensity, but it does not offer the tender depth that I prefer, of Faye’s uncertainty as she faces life. The novel’s tone, the sensitive style of the writing, also changes with this shift to a more direct male narrator.

The final story is about the returned drum and its impact on a impoverished Indian family of four back in Indian territory. After Ira the mother has left them alone, a blizzard begins, and the three children become marooned when their house accidentally burns down. But Ira loves her two daughters, Shawnee and Alice, and her son Apitchi; and is relieved to learn that the children were saved by following the sound of the drum to the house of Bernard, where they find haven from the storm. Bernard then brings the drum to the hospital, where the son, Apitchi, is ill of pneumonia.

The novel closes with a return to Faye, who is now on the road to resolving the issues that confronted her. Is it because she has found and returned the drum to its rightful society? She wonders. “Salvation seems a complicated process with many wobbling steps, and I am skeptical and slow to act.” We last see her in the local cemetery for children, where we met her on the opening page. She has gone there again to mourn her dead sister.

At the cemetery she is also entranced by the black ravens that seem to soar delightedly above her. Similar ravens have appeared throughout the novel, along with ferocious wolves and, at the end, a powerful bear. All are symbols of the nature she appreciates. The ravens, she also sees, as a symbol of the children buried there. “And isn’t their delight a form of the consciousness we share above, and below the ground and in between, where I stand right here?” They also seem to be a symbol of death, the idea of which has haunted this novel. Just as the wolves have seemed a symbol of the ferocious nature that haunts us, even harms us, yet a nature that is without guilt, even as it changes our lives.

This is another remarkable novel by Erdrich. It blends the humanity of man, the richness of nature, the continuity of culture, and the mystery of the occult. It is not a religious occult as much as a cultural occult. But there is also, perhaps new, an emphasis on nature. That while it can be beautiful, it can also be dangerous. And yet is blameless, even as it can harm us.

Erdrich is often known for her story-telling, which may have been inherited from her Indian culture. While the story-telling here focuses on the occult, it is an occult that operates only in earthly terms. And is external to the characters. Whereas, I am drawn to interiors, in this case the internal conscience of Faye, as she confronts love and guilt, along with the beauty of being alive.

Faye is that rarity, a middle-aged hero who is still seeking happiness, and whose emotional loneliness is easy for the reader to relate to—not least because of the sensitivities of the author. We understand the emptiness of Faye’s life, even as she herself appreciates the richness of life, of nature, around her.

The meaning of this novel lies, for me, in Faye’s life, not in the mysterious powers of the drum. I am often moved by spiritual content, but in this case the spiritual is linked to earthly lives rather than to the life of the spirit, and to human aspirations. Some might criticize that here it is about the Indian spirit, but this novel is less about the Indian culture than it is also about the human struggle for fulfillment.

Erdrich continues to be an author I admire. With each novel, she tackles the human predicament in the context of human frailty, cultural conflict, and man’s spiritual longing. (November, 2016)

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

This 2013 work is a fascinating novel, and at the same time a brilliant recreation of history. One suspects that Harris felt the general public did not know the details of this famous event, and that its deception and corruption would make an intriguing work of fiction. And I loudly applaud him for this decision. Enough history has been written about the Dreyfus affair. The public, however, does not read history. It reads fiction.

Overall, this is the story of a miscarriage of justice, a plot created at the highest levels of the French army, a plot created to protect the reputation of that army at the expense of an innocent officer, a Jewish officer, in an era of anti-Semitism. And the novel is the story of how this was carried out, how it lasted for a decade, and how it nearly succeeded.

It did not succeed because of one man, the narrator of the novel, Georges Picquart. Picquart’s involvement was central to justice eventually being rendered, even though he acted in collaboration with many others. But a novel needs a central character, and, by making him the narrator as well, Harris has built a convincing case—even as his author’s note warns that “in order to turn history into a novel, I have been obliged to simplify, to cut out some figures entirely, to dramatize, and to invent many personal details.”

What makes this novel so convincing is the detail. We begin with the formal ceremony, in public, denouncing Captain Dreyfus as guilty. Major Picquart is present as a trusted aide of the French plotters, and is promoted to colonel and head of the army’s Statistical Section, a counterintelligence agency, with the assumption that he will be loyal to his superiors.

The Statistical Section has handled the Dreyfus case; and, at first, Picquart assumes Dreyfus’ guilt. But then he learns more and more about the evidence against the captain, and begins having doubts. He reads Dreyfus’ personal letters and his protestations of innocence. Then…a lover gossips that Dreyfus may be innocent, a torn (blue) telegram never sent by the Germans throws suspicion on a man named Esterhazy, and forged handwriting evidence against the true traitor is revealed to be not by Dreyfus but by Esterhazy. It seems he has been selling information to the Germans. Which is what Dreyfus has been convicted of. And so: are there one traitor, or two?

This is the beginning of Picquart’s effort to learn the truth. Who is the traitor? Why has Dreyfus been convicted? How much involved is the hatred of Jews? Is the evidence against Dreyfus sound? If not, who in the army has manipulated the evidence? And why? As Picquart seeks the answers to these questions, as he doubts the evidence against Dreyfus, the novel becomes more and more fascinating.

But this novel of espionage is also history. And is complicated by the era’s anti-Semitism, as well as by an army leadership which fabricates evidence in order to preserve careers and reputations. It is made credible by its portrait of Picquart, an honest and compassionate officer who gradually comes to believe the evidence that Dreyfus is innocent and Esterhazy is guilty, and who then duels with the army and the political establishment to prove his case. The odds, and the army, are stacked against him, as is even his own aide, Major Henry, but he perseveres. And as he endures defeat after defeat, and false evidence after false evidence, the suspense builds.

But unlike Maslin in the Times, I was more intrigued by the slow build-up, by the early “stream of discoveries,” as complicated as were the description of the forgeries, than by the later efforts to curtail Picquart’s allegations and to silence him—even exiling him to Tunisia. The repeated judicial reversals he endures, all under control of the army, do seem inevitable. But then there is a final political reversal—unexpected in the novel’s terms, I think, because Picquart has no role in the public’s growing awareness of the injustice. And the novel is stuck inside his viewpoint.

Louis Begley writes in his Times review that, as a result of Picquart being the narrator, “the focus is necessarily too narrow, failing to take in the historic background.” While I agree that something is lost at the end, as a result, this is outweighed by Colonel Picquart’s early presence. It is his personal involvement that gets the reader involved. That lends reality to the slow accumulation of details. Meaning Harris has sacrificed history for the sake of making the events come alive.

On picking up this novel, I thought the title referred to Dreyfus, who was an officer and was accused of being a spy. But now I think the word Officer refers to Picquart, who is the novel’s hero, and the word Spy refers, by using the “a,” to both the accused and the actual spy. This stems from my conviction that Harris made the right choice in telling this story through the eyes of Picquart. For just as he is slowly convinced by the compilation of evidence—and through him so is the reader—so does the reader understand why he is ready to sacrifice his career in the interest of justice.

The characterization of Picquart himself, however, is less effective. Despite his love affairs with the married Pauline and others, he does not come across as more than two-dimensional. He and Harris are too focused on the Dreyfus affair to allow significant personal complications to enter. And the other characterizations, of the army leadership, are even one-dimensional. They exist mainly as pro-Dreyfus, very few, or anti-Dreyfus. The overall portrayal is of corrupt army leadership, but individual motives are not evaluated. No one’s conscience is explored. Nor are any doubts that Picquart may have in taking a stand that may mean the sacrifice of his career.

To sum up, this is another case of Harris making the past come alive, of placing the reader in another era by having him identify with a real participant of that era. And by confronting the reader with that character’s daily decisions. The secret to making history come alive in fiction is focusing with a close-up lens rather than a panoramic lens. The panoramic lens is for the historian. I would hope that Harris might take this approach again—such as with the origins of the Russian Revolution. (November, 2016)