Under The Skin, by Michel Faber

under-the-skin-by-michel-faber review coverGenre: Mixed Genre Anthology
Publisher: Harcourt
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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Under the Skin is “a first novel that defies categorization” says the cover blurb, and you can’t argue with cover blurbs — well, you can, but they hardly ever answer back unless you’ve had a few too many. Fortunately this one’s dead right, because the book it’s covering is weird with a capital W. Not really horror, nor science fiction, but at the same time undeniably both, the only thing to do when reading something like this is to go with the flow.

Meet Isserley, an attractive lady motorist who travels the highways and byways of Scotland in search of single male hitch-hikers. She always gives herself time to size them up on the first pass, checking for big muscles (‘a hunk on legs’) because puny, scrawny specimens are of no use to her. Then, once she’s satisfied, she offers them lifts and quizzes them about their backgrounds – the most important factor being will anyone miss them should they suddenly disappear? Is she hoping to keep these poor men as sex-slaves, or perhaps she’s a serial killer who only preys on lonely guys? Nothing quite so mundane, I assure you.

Because if you examine her very closely, you can see scars where Isserley’s been surgically altered. The glasses she wears hide the true shape of her eyes and there is a light downy fur on her skin. Nope, she’s not a werewolf either. She is in fact something we don’t even have a name for yet; another species, closer to an animal in natural appearance but with a heightened intelligence – well, some of them at least. And this new breed who come from some unspecified other place (with a strict social order: rich get richer, the underprivileged get sent to the subterranean estates; you get the idea) have developed a taste for a new kind of food, derived from creatures they call vodsels.

Easily matching the high standard he set for himself in his collection of shorts, Some Rain Must Fall, Michel Faber has for his debut novel come up with a truly rewarding – if thinly-veiled – animal rights allegory that’s enough to make anyone consider turning veggie. He wastes no time plunging us into the thick of it, but gradually builds up the picture piece by piece (cunningly leaving out a few pieces here and there). The descriptions of Faber’s ‘home’ country of Scotland (he was actually born in Holland and raised in Australia) add much needed reality checks, as do the random chunks of dialogue in which anything and everything is discussed between Isserley and her passengers – from relationship problems to John Martyn songs. (The POV switches are rather clever, as well.)

And unlike the anti-heroes in other novels, Isserley doesn’t relish her work. She resents the alterations made to her body (especially the artificial domes fitted to her chest), not to mention the circumstances that made such a procedure necessary. Neither does she gain any pleasure from delivering these men to her colleagues at Ablach Farm, apart from at one crucial point in the book when she crosses the line – although with perfect justification I might add. In fact, all it takes is a visit from her boss’s son, a spoiled but passionate campaigner against the meat trade, to make her question whether she’s doing the right thing. That, combined with the intrinsic beauty she finds in our world: the rolling sea, lush grassland and clear blue sky. The more she thinks about it, the more she comes to the conclusion that, as the title suggests, we’re all the same under the skin.

But if you’re expecting to be preached at, forget it. Despite some of the more obvious parallels between how both our species come by meat, and the barbed remarks about this profession (after castrating and removing the tongue of one victim, Unser the butcher states proudly, “The speed minimizes the trauma. After all, we don’t want to cause unnecessary suffering, do we?”), Faber doesn’t force his convictions on the reader, leaving us to draw our own opinions about what’s going on. Indeed, Isserley’s race is no more bothered about the animals of our planet than they are about the vodsels they eat. (“Are you a dog person or a cat person?” a hitcher asks Isserley. “I don’t know if I could take good care of a pet,” she replies.)

All I can really say is that Faber has one hell of an imagination, and if you let him he’ll take you places no other writer dares to go (he won’t give a toss if he loses you along the way, either – that’s your problem). By degrees touching, disgusting, dangerous and inspiriting, if it does nothing else this is one book that’s certain to get under your skin.

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