Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Book Review: Under the Skin by Michel Faber

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"Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchikers? And why are they always male, well-built and alone?

"An utterly unpredicatable and macabre mystery, Michel Faber's debut novel is an outstanding piece of fiction that will stay with you long after you have turned the final page."


Michel Faber has long been a writer held in high regard, though his somewhat Scottish heritage has resulted in some unfortunate comparisons. Upon the initial publication of his first novel in 2000, Faber was likened to such authors as Alasdair Gray and Irvine Welsh; unfortunate comparisons not insofar as the aforementioned are in any way unworthy, but because the only real similarity between them and the author of Under the Skin is their shared nationality. Welsh, of Trainspotting fame, is notable largely for his vulgarity, and Gray for his authorial verbosity, whereas Faber's strengths lie in altogether different arenas than either of these: what distinguishes his work, and not only from the likes of Welsh and Gray, is his lyrical prose, and moreover, his down-to-earth approach to unspeakable subject matter.

Nowhere is that disarming frankness more in evidence than in Under the Skin. And nowhere in that novel will you feel the creeping unease that is Faber's stock-in-trade more acutely than when in the company of Isserley, from whose perspective the narrative unfolds. Isserley is "half Baywatch babe, half little old lady," with hands like "chicken feet" and a face "small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie's book." From the outset, her appearance feels... constructed somehow. And the more you read, the more keenly you feel the truth of that perplexing first impression. Somehow, Isserley is not right. She is other, in fact, similar but different - and not merely in her appearance.

When we join her, Isserley is cruising along the A9 in a "battered red Toyota Corolla," wearing flared green trousers and a low-cut top - the better to both draw attention to her ample bosoms and distract any interest in the rest of her. She's on the prowl for well-muscled men looking for lifts, and whenever a hitchhiker meets with her approval, she picks him up, gently interrogates him about whether any family or friends might be expecting him, and... well, to tell you what Isserley does with the host of men who are her habitual passengers would be to give the game away, and with a narrative as tense and suspenseful as that of Under the Skin, it simply wouldn't do to spoil the surprise; suffice it to say her intent is not at all what the narrative invites you to expect.

It's difficult, in fact, to talk specifics about Faber's incredible first novel without ruining one or another of its startling turns. And they are many: from the farmhouse Isserley returns to with her vodsel prize each day to the appearance of Amlis Vess; from the unpredictable characters she comes across while trawling the Scottish highlands to the shocking fact of her appearance; you don't realise quite how much Faber is holding back until he unhurriedly reveals the cards in his masterful hand. Under the Skin is a novel that rewards patience, written by an author whose tolerance for teasing is unparalleled.

When all the surprises have been outed, however, Under the Skin seems to lose its way for a while. Faber's allegorical narrative suddenly feels like no substitute for a plot, and though there are characters in abundance, wonderfully drawn and let loose in their element, their actions take on a sense of contrivance that before was nowhere to be found. Perhaps when we come to understand the particulars of the otherness that Under the Skin is suffused with, our attraction to it is diminished - in these moments, even Isserley loses some of her singular appeal. Thankfully, the action picks up in the last chapters: the sense of unease returns in force, and the narrative ends on an appropriately explosive note.

In the end, the allure of Under the Skin is only marred ever so slightly by this brief, hesitant interlude. Otherwise, Faber's first novel does exactly what it says on the tin. In its titular intent, Under the Skin penetrates deeply: this is far and away the most unsettling book I've read all year, and Isserley is among the most memorable protagonists of any novel published this millennium.


Under the Skin
by Michel Faber
April 2010, Canongate

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  1. This is serendipitous as I've just bought Under The Skin. I've loved Faber's other work so I'm really looking forward to it.

  2. Excellent review of an excellent book - I can appreciate how difficult it is to write about this without giving too much away. I've read "Under the Skin" twice now (a rare feat for me: so many books, why bother to read one more than once!) and although the surprises are gone it was still a brilliant read the second time too.

  3. I'm about three quarters through and really enjoying it. I will say, though, that it is a novel that could stand to be treated in a much more straightforward way. It is a science fiction novel and it reveals this very early on. Why then can't we just discuss it as a science fiction novel?

  4. Alright everyone: brace yourself for spoilers.

    @Martin - Is it, though? I read this more as fantasy than science fiction. I may have just been being dense - there's always that possibility - but I truly didn't think Isserley was an alien, as the general concensus dictates. I thought she was a wolf from some subterranean Earth colony, remodeled so that she could lure humans into becoming foodstuff for her advanced animal culture. Which sounds incredibly stupid to say, but Faber never really makes it clear, exactly what Isserley is...

  5. I loved the descriptions in this book. They were so vivid! I could see Isserley so clear and sensed something off about her from the beginning.