‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber

Under-the-skin

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 305 pages; 2000.

This may possibly be the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. That’s because writing 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…

Under the Skin is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

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24 thoughts on “‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber

  1. five stars I must try him I heard you mention this on the podcast and it sound one I’d like then and even more after your review and be first I ve read by him ,all the best stu

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  2. Definitely on my to-read pile now. I read Faber’s Crimson Petal a few years ago and loved it. I get the feeling each of his novels is quite different in style and subject matter.

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  3. Great review and I see it was a difficult one to write without giving anything away. I read this when it first came out and it has really stayed with me. Truly original, as you said, and also thought-provoking.

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  4. Crimson Petal is one of my favourites, but this is absolutely nothing like it. I mean NOTHING like it. The most remarkable thing is that this was his debut novel — it’s a very well constructed book and you don’t quite get how well he uses the language until you get to the end. In the process of writing my review I went back and reread the first chapter and it all made sense — it is littered with “clues”. But when you read it the first time you’re not aware of them… Anyway, hope you like it and do come back and let me know what you think.

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  5. It can be difficult to write the average review without giving away crucial plot spoilers but when there’s a plot spoiler from about page 3 onwards it is a very difficult task!

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  6. Well done on not giving anything away and still writing a thought provoking review! I’m so glad you picked this one for book group as I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. It’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year and I’m still thinking about it!

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  7. Thanks, Sakura. So glad you enjoyed this book. The story does stay with you, doesn’t it? I think the film version is going to be very interesting… I’m puzzled how they’re going to film everything… and I’m worried Scarlett Johansson’s bosoms aren’t big enough!! LOL.

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  8. Picked this up from the library after reading just the first paragraph of your review.
    Literally unputdownable – thanks so much – it’s a long time since I’ve had to keep reading a book whilst sitting at the dinner table 🙂
    I’m a slow reader, but over half way through already.

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  9. This has been on my tbr list for ages. Several friends have read and loved this book and with your review it’s pinged to the top of the list!

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  10. Your friends are right, Eleanor! This is a great book — I’m yet to hear of anyone who didn’t like it. Glad to hear it has pinged to the top of your list!

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  11. I finished this a couple of weeks ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve just reread your review and I’m very impressed how you managed to review it without giving anything away. The story line was completely unexpected but completely absorbing and compelling. I loved it! I can’t wait to red more by Faber.

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  12. Ah, isn’t Under the Skin great?? I’m still thinking about it too… and I read it more than a month ago now.
    Have you read Crimson Petal & The White? It’s TOTALLY different to Under the Skin but it is a magnificent story — quite raunchy and Victorian and deeply moving.

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  13. No, I haven’t read Crimson Petal and the White, although it has been on my wishlist for a while. I love ‘discovering’ new authors when they have a backlog of books to work through.

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  14. I read the book when it first came out, & I still can’t stop thinking about it. The film (thankfully not an adaptation) just being released has rekindled my fascination.
    It’s one of those books that has provided another piece in the jigsaw of my own personal philosophy; two others I can recollect are Borges’s The Garden Of Forking Paths & Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince. So a very important book for me.
    Brilliant review! And I must re-read the book!

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