Michel Faber (of The Crimson Petal and the White fame)’s first full-length novel, Under the Skin, is an eerie science fiction story set in Scotland. If the Highlands have always interested you, or if you are already well accustomed to the drizzly landscape, Faber’s book offers a new spin on the common perceptions of our ethical position as humans inhabiting the Earth. Oddly familiar yet decidedly foreign, Faber’s narrative portrays the Scottish Highlands in an engaging way and forces us to reconsider our own morals.
The novel’s protagonist, Isserley, spends her time driving around looking for lone muscular hitchhikers in the Scottish Highlands and bringing them back to the farm where she works. From here Faber weaves together a prosaic narrative, which becomes more and more unsettling as it develops. It is his ability to combine science fiction and human interest that makes the narrative so engaging. Our initial assumptions are contradicted and our moral instincts and ethical decisions are constantly being questioned throughout Faber’s debut novel.
Most of the novel is dedicated to Isserley’s inner turmoil and psychological development. When the owner’s son comes to visit the farm, Isserley’s beliefs and way of life become challenged in a manner that makes us reflect on our own actions as humans. Isserley’s struggles highlight many modern concerns, such as our impact on the environment and our increasing reliance on factories to sustain our lifestyle.
Faber is utterly convincing in her portrayal of the female psyche, yet the description of her physicality is somewhat lacking and nebulous. This ambiguity is part of the strength in the narrative. Much of Faber’s power comes from her ability to draw the reader into a false sense of understanding and then to contradict any connection that the reader may feel. As Isserley goes through her own personal development, she takes the audience with her. Faber’s narrative leaves room for us to come to our own conclusions, which, in itself, further underlines the perturbing themes of the novel.
Soon to be released as an independent film starring Scarlett Johansen, it is a novel worth reading before its onscreen debut. Filled with rich descriptions of life’s struggles and tackling some of the important questions in today’s society, Under the Skin is a short novel that will make you reconsider what it means to be human.