Books: Michel Faber, Under the Skin

He had a thick moustache which was curtailed severely in line with the outer limits of his great red mouth. His eyes were bloodshot and full of stoically endured pain which only tsunamic revenge and the grovelling apologies of world leaders could hope to cure. Hard wrinkles added a sculpturesque emphasis to a frowning forehead, under a symmetrical haircut combed back like a rinsed paintbrush.

I’m pretty sure it’s only possible to write two sentences about this book without spoiling the story.

Michel Faber has a knack for describing human beings in a way that makes you feel simultaneously affectionate and amused. He picks out the tiny, ridiculous details of the way people speak, act, and style their moustaches.

If you don’t want any spoilers, look away now! And preferably order the book; it’s great.

undertheskinMichel Faber’s best-known novel is The Crimson Petal and the White, a saga about a Victorian sex worker which has been described as the book Charles Dickens might have written if he could have written about sex. I loved it, although I didn’t agree with the comparison. I don’t think Dickens would have magically started writing complex female characters if he had had fewer taboos to contend with. I can’t imagine him ever writing scenes like the one early in the book in which Sugar thinks she’s managed to have a session with William Rackham that doesn’t involve sex, but then unfortunately finds that he has ‘something else to give her’.

At first sight, Under the Skin is set in a totally different world from The Crimson Petal and the White – the contemporary Scottish highlands, where the heroine, Isserley, feels more kinship with the sheep than with any of the hitchhikers she picks up in her carefully customised car. But Isserley actually reminded me of Sugar in many ways: both are damaged people, both are willing to be brutal, and both can ultimately only rely on their own resourcefulness to find an escape. Some of the reviews suggest that the novel presents an ethical dilemma: how can we sympathise with Isserley when her job involves hunting down human beings and bringing them to the slaughterhouse? Maybe this makes me an alien, but I didn’t have any trouble sympathising with her, and I also didn’t really think this was the point.

To me, the core of the novel seems to be the conversations which take place in Isserley’s car: each is an example of flawed, ambiguous communication between beings who can only partly understand each other. To find out whether her prey is suitable for the slaughterhouse, Isserley is forced to find out a little about who he is ‘under the skin’, a process of learning which is disturbing and fascinating, both for her and for the reader.

Most of the books I’ve read so far this year have been by women. Michel Faber is one of the few writers who tempt me to hold back from one of those ‘Year of reading womenexperiments: anyone who wants to write great feminist novels with characters who break the mould can learn something from him.


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