I deliberately sought out this book after my boss suggested it – and spoiled all the twists. But I’m never one to be put off by this. After all, if a book could be destroyed by a quick summation, would would be the point of it’s having been written at all?
Here, I’ll save you the trouble of reading some of the greats:
1.An imaginative, easily bored woman has an affair (or two). At first this seems a good idea, then; suicide.
2. Aristocratic people are fun to hang around with until they are careless (i.e . murderous).
3. War is Hell and writing about it doesn’t help.
4. Reality is off kilter because the politics of the country are inherently absurd.
5. It’s pretty much just World War Two set in a fantasy landscape stand-in for England.
Yes, well. I am being deliberately vague. None of it matters! The writing is the heart and the soul.
Right now I am deciding, do I tell you the story of Under the Skin, or do I give away as little as the blurb on the inner flap does?
Here is the blurb, roughly: Isserley spends her days driving to and fro across the Highlands scouring the roadsides for hitchers. But they have to be the right sort of hitcher: male, muscular, suitable for her needs.
Once she gets them in her car – you won’t believe what happens next. You. Will. Be. Shocked.
I think I’ll tell you: it’s aliens. Isserley is an alien woman, once a four-legged, tailed and furry and snouted ‘human being’. Now carved up by the knives of the corporation that has sent her to Earth disguised as a ‘Vodsel’: one of us. She is in chronic pain, lonely, riddled with dysmorphia, and disdainful of both sorts of ‘humanity’. But why exactly is she trying to lure male vodsels into her car?
You might guess. Isserley is a cog in a highland-based, alien-administered agribusiness. Oh, and they aren’t there to grow tatties or oats. The meat being cultivated and butchered is, of course, people, but in Isserley’s mind, she is the only ‘person’ around. It’s pretty much an allegory for the cruelties and capitalism-fueled delusions of the food production industry. Do not read while eating.
So far, it might seem as if this novel might be a hearty romp in button-pushing territory and nothing more, but Faber never allows the morality of the novel to blare out, filtering the narrative through Isserley’s bleak, pained and furious perspective, and refraining from delivering any simple ray-of-gold moment in which she can be redeemed as heroine. Though he never lingers over scenic description (sadly), Faber uses the natural beauty of the North of Scotland to good effect, adding a touch of salt to the air, a hit of wideness to contrast the narrow, subterranean horrors of Ablach Farm. Though the wrap-up felt a little unsatisfying, and the sci-fi nightmare plot not something I would normally take to, The complexities of Isserley’s situation, her disability, tender wonder and shifting prejudices, kept the hooks in me until the bitter end.
Under the Skin has been adapted for the screen and will star Scarlet Johansson. If nothing else, I think I will see it if it has indeed been filmed in the Highlands. Spoilers are no issue – but will having read the novel help or tarnish my enjoyment of the movie? Perhaps I will write a follow-up piece wrestling with the overlaps and discombobulations of the experience.
Or perhaps I’ll just sum up the bones of the story and pretend I’m giving you prime rare steak of a moat of blood.
(but seriously: after this novel, I shan’t be eating red meat for a while).