I received this book a few months ago as part of my Riot Read Monthly Book Club subscription (now sadly defunct -- I just got the news yesterday), and to be honest, I was fully prepared not to like it. I don't know exactly why this is, but I suspect it had a lot to do with the premise of the book. The plot concerns a British minister, Peter Leigh, who is recruited by a mysterious international company to travel to their outpost on a far-off planet, in order to serve as a missionary to the "natives" (aliens, of course) who live there. I guess I was reluctant to read it because this just sounds really weird. But -- I received it as part of the subscription, and it was just sitting there on my bookshelf when the TBR dare began, so onto the list it went.
I am not exaggerating when I say this is one of the best books I have read in a long time. The premise of the book is, of course, on one level just a vehicle to allow the author to explore much deeper and thought-provoking questions about love, marriage, faith, and humanity. And the book is so skillfully written and compelling that the reader rapidly gets sucked into the book and finds that he cannot put it down. Plus, there's a little mystery that creeps in around the edges of the plot as Peter spends time on the new planet.
Peter is excited, yet apprehensive about going to be a missionary on another planet. And his wife, Bea, is not so sure about this either, but she decides to try and carry on their ministry at home on Earth in his absence. Peter gets to the planet, named "Oasis" in a public-relations contest back on Earth, and is shocked to find out that the natives already know about Jesus (thanks to an earlier missionary, who went missing under mysterious circumstances). The Oasans are a strange, alien race and all the members of the "species" look alike -- so to tell them apart, Peter takes note of the colors of the robes that they wear, which seemingly come in every color of the rainbow and more. He calls the Oasans that profess to be Christian "Jesus Lovers" and gives them numbers. So the first Oasan he encounters takes the name "Jesus Lover One," for example.
But Peter has more problems in this new mission field than just being able to tell the members of his flock apart. Here's a passage that struck me as getting to the heart of Peter's attempts to adapt his ministry and his thinking to a new planet. He's watching the Oasans carry bricks for the church they are building, and they appear to be using fishing nets:
Fishing net? He called it that because that's what it looked like, but it must have been designed for some other purpose -- maybe even specifically for carrying bricks. There was nothing else to use nets for, here. There were no oceans on Oasis, no large bodies of water, and presumably no fish.
No fish. He wondered whether this would cause comprehension problems when it came to certain crucial fish-related Bible stories. There were so many of those: Jonah and the whale, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the Galilean disciples being fishermen, the whole "fishers of men" analogy... The bit in Matthew 13 about the kingdom of Heaven being like a net cast into the sea, gathering fish of every kind... Even in the opening chapter of Genesis, the first animals God made were sea creatures. How much of the Bible would he have to give up as untranslatable?
The title of the novel comes from the Oasans' name for the Bible. And they are so far removed from the language and imagery of the Bible that it must have seemed very strange and new to them the first time they encountered it. As reflected in the passage above, Peter begins to both appreciate and struggle with this strangeness as he attempts to paraphrase selected Bible passages into words that the Oasans can both pronounce and understand. What, for example, does one do with a passage like "The Lord is my Shepherd"? How do you explain a shepherd and what one does in a place where they have no sheep, or really any animal that they take care of? So Peter finally translates this into "The Lord be He that care for me," and clunky as that is, the Oasans immediately grab hold of this and his other paraphrases as something they can truly get their minds around.
However, while Peter settles quickly and easily into his new environment, growing ever fonder of the Oasans and understanding them more every day, all is not well back on Earth. He begins to get distressing messages from Bea (via the interplanetary messaging system they have nicknamed "the Shoot"), and he doesn't know quite what to do. Civilization seems to be falling apart on Earth, and Peter is not terribly supportive of Bea's worry and anguish. Plus, while he appears to be growing in his faith as he ministers to the Oasans (alas, in some ways it turns out to be a pretty shaky faith in the end), Bea is losing her faith back on Earth. It's an interesting dichotomy that is depicted solely through their written interchanges, and while only about 20% of the book is what I would call "epistolary," it turns out to be an important element of the story.
One more cool thing I think you'll like about this book: the title of each chapter comes from the last sentence or phrase of the chapter. This was an interesting technique I had never seen used before, and while I have no clue why Faber did it this way, it became something of an entertaining game to me. Once I picked up on the device, I would try to figure out where the chapter was going to end up, based on the final words of the chapter. It was entertaining because Faber used this as a very twisty device at times!
OK, I lied: here's another cool thing about the book: this is one of the few times I am glad I was reading a physical copy of the book instead of a digital version. The publisher put some thought into the presentation of this book, to wit: the gilded edges of the pages, which make it look exactly like a Bible:
(The photo in which the author discovers that it is pretty hard to catch the glint off gilded page edges with a phone. But he persevered, dear reader, and finally achieved his goal.)
Go read this book! You will be glad you did.