Michel Faber’s debut novel Under The Skin is a reviewer’s nightmare, because it’s one of those books that you cannot really adequately cover without giving too much away. The book defies all categorisation, masquerading as a thriller, science-fiction and horror all at once. There are also elements of allegory and satire woven throughout. Suffice to say, as far as the plot is concerned, it is about a woman called Isserly who is obsessed with driving around the Scottish highlands and picking up well-muscled male hitchhikers. What starts out as a run-of-the-mill sexed-up thriller soon descends into a malebolge of unsettling and repugnant horrors that stole my sleep and left me unnerved for days.
The first half of the book – where revelations are slowly drip-fed to the reader – is the strongest. Michel Faber does a fantastic job of ratcheting up the suspense and the ever-permeating sense of dread by revealing just enough to send the reader’s imagination running wild without fully satisfying their questions. This makes Under The Skin compulsively readable, despite the repetitive events of Isserly’s daily grind; find a hitchhiker, pick him up, find a hitchhiker, pick him up…
Comparatively, the latter half of the novel does not maintain this momentum. Climaxing roughly in the middle with a truly horrific midnight hunt in the dark, after this I had the facts necessary to piece together enough of the truth that my interest waned. A couple of latter attempts on Michel Faber’s part to gross me out failed, and whilst some of the debate surrounding speciesism, classicism and what makes us human were truly interesting, it didn’t quite seem to fit with the ambiguously eerie and unsettling beginning and had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It is also worth noting that if you – like me – are the kind of reader who looks up words they don’t understand, there are a couple of made-up words thrown in here that I would advise you not to investigate; words like ‘icpathua’ and ‘vodsel’. Never forget that the web is dark and full of spoilers…
Despite these quite major sticking points, I really did enjoy Under The Skin. There’s definitely no other book like it, and its opaque ambiguity and downright weirdness is what makes it simultaneously so fascinating and frustrating to read.
Shortly after I finished reading Under The Skin, I watched the 2013 film of the same name starring Scarlett Johansson. I thought the film – which is only a very loose adaption of the book – was just as good, if not better; a fantastic transition from page to screen. Honestly, I would recommend both, so if you cannot bring yourself to read the book based on my rating, it’s definitely worth checking out the film.
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