Title: Under The Skin
Author: Michel Faber
Publisher: Canongate Books
Copy Origin: Author’s own.
Summary (from Goodreads): Isserley is a female driver who picks up hitchhikers with big muscles. She, herself, is tiny, peering child-like over the steering wheel. Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she hears passengers reveal who might miss them if they should disappear.
This review will be split in two, the first half spoiler-free. If you are lucky enough to not know what the story is about and wish to remain so, please stop reading at the spoiler alert.
From the opening paragraph of Under The Skin, Michel Faber’s genre twisting tale set in the Scottish Highlands, you know something is off. Something about this mysterious woman and her search for the perfect hitchhiker is completely and utterly wrong. As the tale unfolds, unveiling more and more of the reality behind the events, the reader remains gripped by the desire to know just what is going on, and by the time the pieces are put together, that urge to understand stays in place.
It’s hard to review this book without spoiling it. Indeed, all of the reviews and advertising for the upcoming movie, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson, give away the twist within the first paragraph or so. I honestly envy those who came to this book completely fresh, although one’s enjoyment of the novel is not spoiled by awareness of Isserley’s mission.
The prose seems at odds with the story itself at first. It’s economical and very precise. Each sentence feels impeccably constructed, the idea of an unnecessary word completely unthinkable to Faber. However, it ultimately creates an almost modernist take on the expected genre storytelling, one that lulls the reader in. It fits well with Isserley herself, a strange woman with unusually large breasts, scars all over her body and a disconnect from the world she drives through and the hitchers she converses with. Moments that should feel banal are anything but, and even when Faber is at his most restrained, the first two thirds of the novel are full of emotion, buoyed by the deft characterisation of its protagonist.
Unfortunately, the climax of the story cannot live up to the promise of the build-up, and what one assumes is supposed to be a moment of realisation ultimately comes up short. The on-point, if not especially subtle, satire is thought provoking if a little too on the nose, but one that could easily elicit accusations of being preachy. However, Under The Skin is worth the journey, even if the destination doesn’t live up to the promise.
Last chance to turn away if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Isserley is an alien who picks up burly male hitchers in the hopes of finding the perfect specimen she can bring back to her fellow workers to farm into meat.
As I mentioned above, the satire is not subtle, with Isserley’s kind referring to themselves as human beings while us homo sapiens are vodsels to be force fed and turned into delicacies for the elite. Like the rest of Faber’s prose, the scenes describing the processing of vodsels are sparsely written but all the more evocative for it. The novel is equal parts science-fiction, thriller, horror and exploration of what it means to be human. Isserley remains oddly sympathetic even as her quest for more specimens becomes a touch obsessive, and the almost psychedelic moments where the alien meets the humane (or is it vice versa?) offer the kind of reading experience it’s hard to find. Even with an ending that feels like such a failure in comparison to the stunning work it preceded, at least Faber fails with style. I have no idea how Jonathan Glazer managed to adapt this (although reviews suggest a lot has been changed, from the setting to supporting characters) but if he pulls it off, it’ll be like nothing else on screen.