UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber (Canongate Books, 2000)

The first time I read this novel, I found it mildly disturbing and extremely distasteful. After having just seen Jonathan Glazer’s loose but still remarkable movie adaptation, I decided to give it another try. This time around I got it!

I can now appreciate what a powerful and brilliantly sustained piece of writing it is. At the same time I can understand what I initially found so off-putting.

Faber’s precise, clinical  prose is emotionally detached to the point that he challenges readers to use their own moral compass to decipher the grotesque story of a freakish female extraterrestrial named Isserley who assumes human form to prey upon unsuspecting hitchhikers in the Scottish Highlands.

Initially you think that her motives are sexual as she seeks out muscular men and flashes her surgically enhanced boobs at them. It transpires that her intentions are far more sinister as these beefy men are quite literally wanted for their meat value.

It takes a while to realise what Faber calls human beings are actually fox-like alien creatures from Isserley’s homeland while we Homo sapiens are downgraded to ‘vodsels’ whose grim fate is to be processed into “thin fillets of braised voddissin”.

Faber does not shy away from the grisly details of how the captured men are processed. After having their tongues removed, they are “shaved, castrated, intestinally modified, [and] chemically purified” then kept in dark, underground pens where they are fattened in readiness for slaughter. If all this sounds disagreeable, then maybe those meat-eaters among you might stop to consider the cruel factory farming processes that lie behind those innocuous looking cellophane packs of meat on supermarket shelves. Although Faber is not a vegetarian, he certainly makes a strong argument for the animal rights cause.

As you may have surmised, humanity is not presented in a particularly glowing light. The lone hitchers Isserly picks up are those who are the most isolated and vulnerable. As such they are unlikely to be missed since they live “skulking at the periphery of the herd”. Isserley makes the logical assumption that “the vodsel community seemed to be selecting those of its members it was content to have culled”.

By concentrating the third person narrative solely on Isserley, we see our world through her alien eyes and come to understand her physical and psychological pain and suffering and even to sympathise with her plight despite her merciless actions.

Any brief plot synopsis might lead you to assume this is a Sci-Fi novel but Faber rejects being lumped into this all-encompassing genre. He says “I’m not interested in the furniture of Science Fiction” and has said that he would prefer it to be seen as a parable or simply as ‘literary fiction’.

Ultimately, however the only classification that really makes sense is that this is a must-read novel.

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