This has been made into a massively acclaimed film, but I haven’t seen it yet (and I understand it’s pretty different from the book) so this blog is just going to be about the novel.
I read this book with a feeling of wary anticipation. The only other book I’ve read by Michel Faber was ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ a book (mostly) about a Victorian prostitute which took evident joy in showing the hidden seedy side of the nineteenth century. The reason I was cautious was because I generally think that Faber was exploring themes about which I feel strongly (largely around hypocrisy and the role of women) but I can’t help feeling slightly ambivalent about his conclusions. Not upset or angry, just a bit like I didn’t receive the answer I was hoping for and that I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing.
Take the set up for ‘Under the Skin’. A small, defenceless woman is driving through deserted motorways looking for and at hitchhikers. She is on a mission to pick up the right kind of man: healthy, alone and as vulnerable as possible. Details emerge slowly, she has a scarred face and it is implied that surgery has left her in chronic pain. She avoids the shadowy figures who live on the same isolated farm complex as her. She must make sure that her hitchhikers won’t be traced after getting into her car.
If you’re looking for gender politics, they aren’t too far from the surface. It’s not a coincidence that Isserley only picks up men and that her body is overtly sexual, while her own vulnerability lends an added dimension to the hunter/hunted dynamic of the situation. Her pride in her work and her abject subjugation before authority show an interesting mixture of stereotypical masculine and feminine characteristics. Meanwhile her perception of herself is explored in masterful complexity, playing with the instability of her identity and her isolation from all normal frames of reference.
Oh, there’s also a whole other dimension to the story that’s all about colonisation, appropriation and factory-farming. Seriously, it’s a very dense and issue-packed novel.
As for my final opinion, well I’m still conflicted. I love the sci-fi elements and I admire how Faber plays with traditional gender roles. On the other hand, the whole farming idea reminds me of a book I read as a child about a chicken who escapes from a factory-farm to spread the word about unethical food production. Also, while the ending was clever, it did seem to conform to the powerful/powerless relationships the rest of the novel had been challenging. I’ve heard that the film changed the ending, which leads to the ongoing debate about film adaptations of books. Overall ‘Under the Skin’ is definitely a book that lends itself to discussion. I didn’t love it, but have enjoyed thinking about my problems with it. Not all books can withstand this kind of scrutiny, but ‘Under the Skin’ is certainly worthy of a whole lot of debate.