Under the Skin: Michel Faber

★★★½

Every day, Isserley spends hours driving along the A9, the arterial road which runs like a backbone through Scotland. She’s always on the lookout for hitchhikers, but she has a few ground rules. She only stops for the tall, well-muscled ones. And she loses interest pretty quickly if it turns out that they’re married, or have a girlfriend. You see, Isserley’s very careful. She’s only really interested in the ones no one would miss. The twisted offspring of a sci-fi novel, a murder mystery and an urban legend, Michel Faber’s story plays with expectations in a way that’s fascinating – but deeply disturbing.

There’s only so much one can say without completely ruining Faber’s concept, so I’m going to keep this all as vague as I possibly can (potentially to the point of being utterly unhelpful) but I would stress that the story seems quite different from that developed for the film version with Scarlett Johansson (which I haven’t seen). This is far more explicit, complex and ambitious and I’m actually disappointed that the film took a different route, as I’d be intrigued to see how they translated Faber’s real vision to the screen.

Isserley has sacrificed a lot for her job, which she takes extremely seriously. Having seized upon it as an escape from mindless labour, she’s desperate to make it work, especially because there’s no way back now. She knew from the start that her decision was irrevocable, but she’s increasingly bitter about it: after all, she’s the only woman in her firm, and she not only has to cope with the prurient interest of her colleagues, but also with the pressure of knowing that she looks like a freak. And her strange physical quirks – her thick, bottle-glass spectacles and short skinny legs, her implausibly pneumatic breasts and her constant pain – grow more depressing when the boss’s son, Amlis Vess, comes on a surprise visit. Not only does he prove to have discomforting ideas about animal cruelty, but he also turns out to be the most beautiful man Isserley has ever seen, in a way that makes her uncomfortably conscious of her own twisted body.

There are lots of unanswered questions here – how, for example, did this whole setup come about in the first place? – but I suppose most of them don’t really matter. Faber is interested in his characters’ inner worlds, primarily that of Isserley, and he drip-feeds external description to the point that the reader’s realisation comes with a bit of a jolt. To translate this story correctly to film would have required a great deal of very challenging CGI and, though I’d love to understand exactly what Faber saw in his mind as he wrote (my own imagination tends towards the canine), perhaps it’s better that things should remain suggested, rather than revealed. After all, as this book shows better than most, suggestion is a most powerful tool and can cover a multitude of sins.

Until Under the Skin, I’d only read one novel by Faber: The Crimson Petal and the White, which I absolutely loved. I found this book during a pitstop at the library last Saturday (because my acquisitive faculties hadn’t been dampened by a spree at the Strand during my time in New York), along with another Faber: The Book of Strange New Things. That, like this, promises to deal with the question of colliding worlds and new intelligences, and I’m keen to see how it compares. I see that Strange New Things has the same kind of satisfying heft as The Crimson Petal, whereas Under the Skin is a slimmer novel and feels more like a vignette, an experiment, than the sort of meaty story at which Faber excels (forgive the unintentional pun). Has anyone both read this book and seen the Johansson film? I can’t help feeling that it would lose a good deal of its interest by having the most challenging aspects stripped out, but I see that it’s had very good critical reviews and perhaps the shift of focus gives it a different kind of eerie power?

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