Recently, I reviewed Michel Faber’s new novel The Book of Strange New Things. My greatest sense of the story was a feeling of disconnection and I used descriptors like emotionally sterile, carefully controlled, and, in regards to the main character’s mindset “dreamy apathy”. Then, earlier in the week I came across this interview Faber just did with NPR. I don’t want to paraphrase here so please listen to it—it’s less than 3 minutes long. Michel Faber Interview
Yes, Faber wrote this novel while his wife was dying of bone marrow cancer. I’m not back today today because I think my lackluster review ever reached Faber’s eyes or even matters in the larger scheme of things. I’m writing because, for as much as I feel bad about not “getting” the book I also wonder just how much an author’s personal life should play into reviews of their books. For me, now knowing that Faber constructed this world where a man is separated from his wife by billions of miles and so cannot truly understand the hardships she is going through back on Earth, makes perfect sense. It casts the entire novel in a whole new light. And yet, this overwhelming sadness I see now in much of the story is only me imposing myself on a situation I know nothing about.
I have no idea what it is like to be a professional reviewer for a book publication and so, don’t know if the people reading novels for The Guardian, The New York Times, or any of the other big publications are given personal author background information when they read a book for review. Or is it considered irrelevant and the work is to be judged on its own merit? Given that the mainstream media make no mention of Faber’s personal life in their reviews it seems to me that it is not a factor to be considered and by and large I agree, but for me much of my perception of The Book of Strange New Things has changed. I may be confused and conflicted on what is fiction and what is tinged with reality but there is no doubt about the novel’s last sentence when the protagonist quotes from the Book of Matthew, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. For me, this heartbroken statement lends more weight to the story than it previously held and knowing of Faber’s loss, gives the book deeper meaning. I’m not so sure whether this is a good thing for readers or whether the story itself should have evoked emotion on its own—what do you think?