I doubt I could have entered into Michel Faber’s world with a better book. I started at the very beginning (and what a début!) with Under the Skin. It really was like entering a different world. It’s the type of book that you have to put down at intervals, to have a stunned couple of recovery breaths.
Isserley, the unusual anti-heroine/ heroine, is introduced in the first paragraph as a driver sizing up hitch-hikers. She’s “looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her”.
Less than a page in and the reader is already feeling uncomfortable. There’s something unsettling about this book. And this feeling intensifies as the book progresses. With each new hitch-hiker, another piece of the puzzle is revealed.
The writing is simple yet mesmerising, creating a perfect atmosphere, “Isserley…often ventured out at hours of such prehistoric stillness that her vehicle might have been the first ever. It was as if she had been set down on a world so newly finished that the mountains might still have some shifting to do…”. The morning mists and drizzly evenings of Scotland are a perfect backdrop for Isserley’s strange, lonely life.
This is suspenseful story telling at its best but Under the Skin is so much more than a creepy mystery with a plot twist. Faber could easily have ruined this book by giving too much detail. Instead, there’s room for the reader’s own imagination to take over. He has created a world with lots of questions, and only a few answers.
Using the perplexing character of Isserley, Faber introduces issues such as humanity, hypocrisy and morality. I find it hard to articulate the confusion of thoughts I have about the main character. She is detestable and yet induces feelings of compassion. But aren’t the most believable and memorable characters always the more complex ones?
It’s difficult to write about Under the Skin without spoilers. I will warn potential readers this isn’t a relaxing holiday read, but it’s definitely worth every uneasy moment.