Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)
From the cover and blurb of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin I was expecting some sort of psychosexual thriller about a murderous woman on the prowl for male suitors. This is not my usual tastes, but what the hell. At first, Under the Skin does appear to follow this formulaic path but quickly turns in to something much more complicated, much more compelling and deeply disturbing.
Isserley is a slightly odd woman who drives along highways in Scotland looking for physically fit male hitchhikers. Through what appear to be casual conversations she determines their drifter status and further assesses their physical suitability, and those that are found satisfactory she takes back to a secluded farm. And that, unfortunately, is as much as I am willing to reveal in this review and I apologize for the vagueness that is to follow. Under the Skin is a novel where the less you know about its premise, the greater the impact on the reader. I was, as mentioned, rather clueless and as a result was very much bewildered, frightened and intrigued by this story, carrying it with me beyond the pages.
Isserley switches the television off. More awake now, she’d remembered something she should have known from the beginning, which was that there was no point trying to orient yourself to reality with television. It only made things worse.
Isserley herself is compellingly strange, marked by an inability to understand simple concepts, unexplained debilitating aches and pains, odd turns of phrase and unfamiliar words, and a ambiguous moral attitude toward picking up the drifters that she begins to question and explore as the novel progresses. Her use of unfamiliar slang (that wordnerds may attempt to look up in a dictionary and become frustrated that it doesn’t appear there) purposely alienates the reader from immediately determining Isserley’s role. At the same time, the peculiarity of the words and images invokes the desire to uncover the truth.
Yet, as you think you’re beginning to understand something, however briefly, Faber turns those assumptions to dust. My original expectations of this book as “psychosexual thriller” in part shaped my reaction to it – everything that happened was much stranger and more disturbing than I could have anticipated. Under the Skin is an artful experience of suspense, as Faber provides just enough without seeming unclear or without direction.
That’s what lying had done to the world. All the lying that people had been doing since the dawn of time, all the lying they were doing still. The price everyone paid for it was the death of trust. It meant that no two humans, however innocent they might be, could ever approach one another like two animals. Civilization!
As well as exploring Isserley’s growing contempt for her employer and her own existence, Faber reveals Isserley’s drifters through brief glimpses of their interior monologues, and by contrasting the cruelty, callousness and sometimes kindness of these drifters with the grisly severity of their fate Faber points us towards our own humanity. The story itself suggests a larger moral implication which is readily applied to our own everyday choices without seeming didactic. However, it would be too simplistic to read Under the Skin as straight allegory, as it manages to be much more complicated than a simple folk tale.
Like a half-remembered nightmare, Under the Skin lingers long after it has ended, the gaps leaving open any number of horrific possibilities. Words like chilling, horrifying or harrowing, and vague reviews like this one, do not do this book justice.