Under the Skin is the only book that I have closed and thought “Wow, that book is smarter than me.” Now, that may sound uppity and probably makes me sound like I think I am ridiculously intelligent and have never been challenged by a book in my life. Can I just say that’s not my point at all. I am fairly clever, sure, but Under the Skin is really, really clever.
I went out and bought my copy of Under the Skin when I read the plot for the movie (same title, starring Scarlett Johanssen) and thought, Well, that sounds cool. A woman, who is not what she seems and is abducting hitchhikers for some seemingly dark and unknown purpose? Tell me more! I do think it is always best to read the book before seeing the movie, but it took me a long time before I could brave the film after finishing the book.
Michel Faber’s first foray into science fiction is subtle. I didn’t realise that it was science fiction until I was a third of the way into the book. To me, it was a story about Isserley, a strange woman with perfect breasts (he mentions those a lot), who is uncomfortable in her clothes, her car and seemingly her skin. She finds male hitchhikers who won’t be missed and offers them a lift. They chat for a while and the hitchhikers always mention her boobs (Note to self: perfect boobs = perfect hitchhiker abducting tool). Then she injects them with a sleeping serum that shoots out from the passenger seat and brings them to a, for lack of a better word, farm.
I’ll stop expanding on the plot because the farm is very interesting and is worth discovering on your own.
Isserley, our sort-of-heroine, is an emotionally scarred woman. She’s awkward and odd but also strangely alluring. She hates her existence. She is uncomfortable, forced into a body that she doesn’t like and is doing a role that she doesn’t completely understand or enjoy. This all adds to the secrecy and danger of Faber’s novel.
She’s the centrepiece of the story and yet, you know almost nothing about Isserly for a good third of the book. It’s her bizarreness that kept me reading. She’s the heart of the book and not that likeable.
Isserley is an interesting character, whom Scarlett Johanssen really didn’t do justice (though her boobs are pretty damn good). In fact, I hated the film adaptation. It was overly artsy and skimmed over the subtleties that I so admired in the novel. It went so off book (thanks, I’ll be here all week) that my face was one of disgust for most of the movie. This is a film-book pairing where the book is miles ahead of the film and really, I think the film just missed the point and didn’t do Faber’s book, and vision, any justice.
It was Michel Faber’s use of words that had me in such awe. He could say so much by saying so very little. It’s for this reason that the book is oh-so clever. Though Isserley’s abductions are far from forgiveable, his descriptions of her are kind and understanding and make you pity her rather than her victims. You don’t even notice the empathy you’re feeling.
Faber’s imagination is a dark, dark pool. It’s an amazing place, but just enter with it with a little trepidation. Under the Skin was the first book that I closed out of disgust for a particularly descriptive paragraph. I paused, shuddered, went to brush my teeth in order to feel some semblance of cleanliness. This one moment was particularly real, foul and a little too well-described, but it was also a crucial turning point. It was the pivitol scene where I recieved the answers I so desperately craved. I picked the book back up and voratiously read on.
So, thank you, Mr. Faber. In under 300 pages you made me think, reel and question what it means to be human. I look forward to picking up another of your creations and will be doing so sometime soon.