When I discovered The Crimson Petal and the White back in 2011 (partly due to Mark Munden’s sumptuous BBC miniseries) I was captivated by Michel Faber’s ability to write such a convincing female protagonist and evoke grubby Victorian London in a way that might have even impressed Dickens himself. Since then, for no good reason whatsoever, I have completely neglected his back catalogue (though I did dip into The Apple whilst on holiday – short stories revolving around the Crimson Petal) only to be reminded of it when my parents treated me to his début novel; Under the Skin, for Christmas last year:
‘Under the Skin…centres around a female character, Isserley, who seems to be obsessed with picking up male hitch-hikers – just so long as they are well-muscled and alone…’
Sounds a little kinky doesn’t it? I certainly thought so whilst perusing the blurb over my turkey butties. Not so my friends, not so.
Isserley is a mysterious, awkward looking, seemingly vulnerable yet also strangely threatening young woman who spends her days driving up and down the A9 in the wilds of Scotland picking up muscly men and proceeding to grill them on their lives. Do they have any family? A job? Any friends?
The reason why she asks these question is up to you as readers to find out as this is simply one of those books where it would be impossible to summarise any part of the plot without completely giving the game away. What I can say is that this is an accomplished first novel and certainly does not read like a début. Faber’s carefully managed prose means that we feel incredibly anxious for a huge portion of the book without really understanding why. The bleak, Scottish landscape is one close to my heart and its hazy, remote landscape mirrors our mood as, trapped behind Isserley’s impassive eyes, we experience emotions ranging from sympathy, to anger, to complete disgust. Bigger themes may be at play here; such as the concept of what it means to be human, the ethical concerns around consumption and the destructive power of multi-national corporations but these concerns can very easily fly out of minds when confronted by the horrifying process obscured behind seemingly abandoned farm houses and fields, made all the more frightening by our ‘heroine”s dispassionate attitude. Faber uses his great skill to reveal his story to us bit by bit, take a few steps backwards and make us doubt ourselves once again, before pushing on forward. Brilliant. I dread to think what my face looked like whilst reading this on the way to work in the morning!
This is a wonderful book, the best I have read all year, so far everything else is paling in comparison. It is completely unique and unpredictable; imagine the subtlety and brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale combined with the sheer foulness of Jeepers Creepers and you might be getting somewhere there.
Faber’s imagination and narrative scope is just beyond belief. How an author can go from what is essentially science-fiction to a bumper, flouncing historical novel set in Victorian England and make it just as exciting and engaging is anyone’s guess but one thing is clear, he is a man to carry on watching, who know what he might come up with next. Hopefully another utterly convincing strong female narrator. Bravo!
Much to my dismay, Under the Skin will be released this year in film format, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson, which is complete and utter poppycock and I’m already unconvinced….booo.