Michel Faber - Under the Skin (2000)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Under the Skin is utterly compelling and thought-provoking from start to finish. It begins with a woman, Isserley, driving through the Highlands on the look-out for male hitchhikers. She doesn’t want any weaklings: they’ve got to be youngish, healthy, preferably strapping, specimens. It’s a bizarre opener, made more so by the flat, clean-cut, unremarkable tone of the prose. Isserley’s motives are obscured; you don’t know if the hitchhiker she picks up is to be treated to a roll in the back seat, or some horrible revenge meted out by a wronged woman.
Finally, after checking the coast is clear, she picks up a man. During the car ride we have access to both characters’ thoughts. Isserley worries about what’s under the man’s clothes – ‘Even a starveling could look muscle-bound if he had enough gear on’ – and he reflects morosely on his ex-wife, breaking off to have a good eyeful of Isserley’s pneumatic breasts. They have some uneasy conversation; the dialogue throughout the novel is authentic in the way that real conversation can be banal and funny and sad all at the same time. After she ascertains that the hitcher has no-one waiting for him, no-one, in fact, who’ll care if he disappears, she flicks a ‘toggle’ that releases a shot of something called icpathua. The man crumples up, unconscious. From this point on you start to feel a sense of horror about what’s going to happen next, and this feeling of horror is sustained and added to throughout. Stuff Stephen King; this is a truly frightening read.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot by saying any more, and indeed one of the great pleasures of Under the Skin is the way information is masterfully leaked to you. The revelations are perfectly paced, and you never feel disorientated by them, only urged to read on, faster and faster. Although I don’t usually like anything that has a whiff of science fiction about it, this book – like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 – works by incorporating its more fantastical elements into a highly realistic framework and a strong moral message.
As a whole, it presents a humane defense for animal rights, a message that broadens to include compassion for anyone in society who is different. Whatever you take from Under the Skin, the characterisation and plot make it so original and distinctive you can’t put it down. I know lots of people who’ve read it and they’ve all loved it.
Further reading: Some Rain Must Fall (1998) is an offbeat collection of short stories; The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) is a painstakingly described recreation of Victorian England and the life of a prostitute called Sugar.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.