Under the Skin by Michel Faber

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Under the Skin

Author: Michel Faber

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, science fiction, indescribable

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is a book that walks the line between standard horror fiction with a literary bent and yet is so deeply disturbing that it is odd by default. So, since I am sort of a bad parent and favor one child over the other, I am discussing it over here because oddbooks is soooo much better than her sister. But I find it pretty disturbing and by my own admittedly uneven criteria, I’m discussing it here.

Availability: Published by Harcourt in 2000, you can get a copy here:

Comments:This is going to be a startlingly short discussion. I am a person who is, to put it kindly, verbose. Wordy. I type too damn much sometimes. I know this. And if I let this tendency go unchecked in this discussion, I will spoil this entire book for you. This is a book wherein crucial plot points are revealed in layers. As you read, Faber reveals bits and pieces that make you wonder what is wrong, why the main character is experiencing back pain, why she looks odd, why she is stalking large, well-built men, and it call becomes clear about a third of the way into the book. The horror continues to unfold apace but in the interest of not ruining this book for anyone who wants to read it, I will have to discuss it in vagaries that may not show the true mastery of this book.

So I will have to do that which I hate doing the most. I will have to ask you to take my word for it. This book is cleverly written. It is full of pathos and a character who is working her way through physical pain, mental anguish, and moral dilemmas that could potentially render her life meaningless and cause her to become in her own mind the worst sort of monster. It is literary fiction, but at the same time, it is extreme horror. There are graphic descriptions of cruelty in this book that are fucking horrible. This is a novel that will give you no comfort, none at all, save for one scene where Isserley, the main character, manages to prevent a dog from starving to death.

The book begins with Isserley, driving along the highway system in Scotland, stalking men who meet a very specific physical criteria. Isserley is in considerable physical discomfort as she flashes her large breasts in an attempt to distract her prey, but until the plot reveals itself you don’t ever really know why it is that the mental picture Faber paints of Isserley seems so imbued with wrongness. Isserley’s shabby little car has been outfitted with a switch that deploys a needle full of knock-out drugs through the car seat where her hitchhiker pick-ups sit and once unconscious, she takes them to a farm where they meet a fate that is later explained in deep, horrific detail. If I discuss much more than this, or even convey my favorite passages, I will spoil this book and it is killing me not being able to wallow in this book to the degree I would prefer.

But I can safely say that if you like books with deep moral dilemmas, you will like this book. If you like books with explicit violence, you will like this book. If you like horror/science fiction crossovers, you will like this book. If you prefer books with excellent characterization and find understanding the heart of darkness compelling reading, you will want to read this book.

The horror is not as extreme as “extreme horror” and it is not a mystery though the plot unfolds to reveal hidden truths. This is not straightforward horror and it is not straightforward science fiction. And for people who like character-driven books, the extraordinary plot in this book may distract. But despite all the things this book can be said definitively not to be, the hybrid that remains is a creepy, disturbing, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking book. I recommend it highly.

8 thoughts on “Under the Skin by Michel Faber

  1. This book is *incredible* and possibly one of the strangest things I’ve ever read. I had no idea what I was getting into when I read it – I just picked it up because I read another of Faber’s novels.

    1. I will be reading the rest of his backlist. I was stunned by how utterly savage, grotesque and calculating this book was, given that I just thought it was gonna be another serial killer book.

    1. Oh man, Charles, I know the scene you mean. My corollary is that now whenever I hear John Martyn I think of this book. An incredibly sweet and lovely song like “Head and Heart” is now linked to this deeply disturbing book. This book is powerful.

  2. Someone else has read this book! And you describe it exactly how I describe it to my friends lol I try my best to get every person I know to read this, but people just don’t want to take a chance on an indescribable novel…

    I like how you tackled it though. I’ll have to send this to some of my friends and re-affirm my statement that it is a *good* book.

  3. You were right about this one, it is a fantastic literary horror/sci-fi novel. The gradual revelation of what was going on kept me reading even when the story got a bit repetitive, though I think there are good reasons for the repetition – one being to build suspense/tension, another being to flesh out these characters who will be subjected to, as you put it, “fucking horrible” cruelty.

    I’d better stop before I let slip any spoilers, but I will say that, while this was a great book all around, it didn’t horrify me or creep me out quite as much as it (apparently) did everyone else. I must be even more desensitized than I thought.

    “MERCY” 😛

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