This may possibly be the most difficult review I've ever had to write. Clearly, given my five-star rating, it's not because the book is bad; on the contrary, it is superb. But to try and write about Michel Faber's Under the Skin without giving away crucial plot spoilers is nigh on impossible.
This is a novel that is cloaked in secrecy — I've yet to come across a review online that gives away the bizarre content or the dramatic ending — and I'm not about to become the first to give it all away. Let me just say that it is quite unlike anything I've ever read before. It's intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin...
An unconventional lead character
First, let's meet the main character, Isserley, who is "half Baywatch babe, half little old lady". She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland in her battered red Toyota Corolla and often picks up hitchhikers along the way — well, actually, she seeks them out, but more on that later. This is how one man she picks up describes her:
Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn't much of her otherwise. Tiny — like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. [...] The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows — no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. [...] Her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie's book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was wearing the thickest glasses he'd seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.
So, now that we know that Isserley looks unconventional, I can tell you about her unconventional job — which is to cruise the main roads of Scotland looking for hitchhikers who are "hunks on legs". She wants big men, specifically men with muscles, and when she lures them into her car she can't help "savouring the thought of how superb he'd be once he was naked".
What happens to these men once they've been "caught" — or lured by Isserley's big bosoms, more accurately — is the crux of the novel. And on that score I'm keeping completely schtum. Sorry.
An "issues" novel
As much as I'm loathe to describe Under the Skin as an "issues" novel, it does contain many ethical, moral and political matters that may well force you to rethink your views on everything from Nature to meat consumption, sexual identity to the notion of mercy. How we view the outsider and our attempts to conform and make sense of the world are also key elements — and to what degree do we judge people by appearance and not substance or character.
While the prose style is not particularly elegant or lyrical, Faber is very good at describing the beauty of the landscape and the rural sights that Isserley sees while she is on the road.
A luminous moat of rainwater, a swarm of gulls following a seeder around a loamy field, a glimpse of rain two or three mountains away, even a lone oystercatcher flying overhead: any of these could make Isserley half forget what she was on the road for.
And you really get a sense of Isserley's pain and hardship, and the sacrifices she has made to be successful in her job. She's a wonderful character — feisty, strong, opinionated and human — and despite her dubious occupation, it's hard not to feel empathy for her.
While the story swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments, Faber seems to have one hand firmly on the tiller: nothing is overplayed or gratuitous or even fully explained. He takes you on a ride as exciting as Isserley's adventures in her beat up old car and somehow makes you think about the world in a completely different way.
Under the Skin — which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000 — is definitely one of the most strange and original novels I've ever read. It's also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking stories I've come across in years — and with all the books I devour, that's really saying something...
I read this book as part of my year-long Project 1001.
I also chose it for my Riverside Readers book group and was delighted to find that the four other members who made the meeting loved it as much as me — there was certainly a lot to discuss. We awarded it a group score of 9.4 out of 10.