Updated on January 7, 2018
29. ‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber
There’s a story behind how I came to read Under the Skin. I mean, I was always going to, but there’s a story behind how I came to read it now. It happened because Michel Faber emailed me.
On his internet travels, Michel Faber came across my 2016 Blog Awards, in which I gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award for being repeatedly awesome. He said thank you for the award, and I told him he was the first writer to accept one of my awards in person. Then I said I was planning on reading Under the Skin next, and he said:
So obviously, it got bumped up my to-read list!
Under the Skin is about Isserley, a woman who drives around Scotland sizing up and then picking up hitchhikers. Where she comes from and what she wants them for is a mystery that is gradually revealed throughout the book – with disturbing results. David Mitchell (one of my other favourite writers) describes it as “one of the best-orchestrated reveals in modern British fiction”. Unfortunately, I did have this reveal slightly spoiled for me by the Wikipedia page (I know, I never should have gone there), but it hardly mattered because this is an excellent book.
Under the Skin has a really fantastic sense of dark tension all the way through, and it becomes more overtly horrifying the more we discover about Isserley’s world. The story revolves around the idea of food, specifically meat, and where our food comes from. Faber has created a world that overturns our preconceptions and shines a spotlight on the mental gymnastics involved in meat-eating. That’s not to say that this is a pro-vegetarian treatise; it’s more about understanding where our food comes from. In an interview for Barcelona Review, Faber said, “Under The Skin is a work of literature and not intended to be an ‘argument’ for anything. […] The trouble with our carnivorous society is that we have millions of people eating vast amounts of meat but not wanting to take moral responsibility for how it’s produced. […] The question is how much [we eat], and by what means we obtain it.”
At the heart of the story is our central character, Isserley, who becomes increasingly unstable as her world is disrupted by outside forces. Yet she remains sympathetic throughout, despite the things she does, and this is the beauty of her character (and many of Faber’s other characters too): they are contradictory and inescapably real. Faber has said, “in real life, we are challenged to feel compassion for people we dislike or fear, and to reject evil behaviours in people we love,” and he certainly captures this human complexity in Under the Skin.
Gender is also a strong theme in this novel. Isserley is the only woman on the farm where she lives and she often feels isolated from the men who do not understand her. She only ever picks up male hitchhikers, and certain parts of her body have been altered to appeal to them – and they virtually all notice. Despite her unusual origins, Isserley still encounters many of the stereotypes and expectations that are placed upon women, and she often finds them difficult to deal with.
This is a really great book that will stay in your brain long after you’ve read it. Isserley is a fascinating character, and the gradual reveal of her past (and her present) is truly unsettling. If you want a book that will shock and disturb you, and make you think, Under the Skin is perfect.
“The indiscriminate, eternal devotion of nature to its numberless particles had an emotional importance for Isserley; it put the unfairness of human life into perspective.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.