Under the Skin

Michel Faber, Author, Robert Dreesen, Editor Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $23 (320p) ISBN 978-0-15-100626-7
A strange woman named Isserley roams the Scottish Highlands in search of juicy, well-muscled hitchhikers in Faber's menacing but unfulfilling debut novel (after Some Rain Must Fall, a collection of short stories). The opening chapters are suffused with an almost palpable sense of dread: Isserley picks up one hitchhiker after another and engages them in conversation, measuring them against a set of criteria of which the reader, as yet, is unaware. Some of the men are discarded and some are kept; in the process the reader learns that Isserley herself is oddly shaped, with breasts too large, legs too short, and scars everywhere. Faber's pacing here is masterful, with clues precisely dropped and details ominously described. But once Faber reveals the reason Isserley is collecting the hitchhikers (and it's truly bizarre), the book turns from horror to allegory and begins to run out of steam. The central conceit of the allegory is repugnant, but also unimpressive; it feels like something animal rights extremists might have cooked up after watching Soylent Green. Faber possesses an undeniable gift for grotesque imagery (""He grinned so broadly it was like an incision slicing his head in two""), but his unsettling prose doesn't adequately flesh out the underdeveloped premise of the story. Still, the Dutch-born and Australian-raised Faber is a strange and promising new talent, and his next novel might better use the macabre skills he so unnervingly displays here. (July)
Reviewed on: 07/03/2000
Release date: 07/01/2000
Genre: Fiction
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