Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000) 299 p.

I was at a David Mitchell talk at the Piccadilly Waterstone’s a few months back, and after getting my copy of The Bone Clocks signed I noticed Michel Faber was also in the audience, so I went and talked to him. I was fairly pleased with myself, because anybody can buy tickets to see an author but it takes a skilful eye to pick one out of the crowd, you know? So it was sort of embarrassing to admit to him that while he was on my TBR list, I hadn’t actually read any of his novels, and had only recognised him because he was on Meet the Author the previous week. (Not that he cared, he was really nice.) So anyway, now that my namedropping is out of the way, time to review Faber’s first novel Under the Skin.

This will actually be a frustrating book to review, because it’s a) the kind of novel that raises lots of stuff for discussion, but b) also the kind of novel you want to know very little about beforehand. Suffice to say that it follows Isserley, a large-breasted but weirdly proportioned woman who drives around Scotland picking up healthy, muscular male hitch-hikers. At first the reader assumes she’s a nymphomaniac – then, perhaps, a serial killer? The actual truth is bizarre and horrifying, and if that sounds like a good read to you (and it is, indeed, a really good book) then stop reading this now.

I think I was actually spoiled on the plot years ago, which is possibly how it ended up on my TBR pile in the first place. Faber is apparently reputed for writing books which are all very different from one other; his other well-known ones include The Crimson Petal and the White, a historical Victorian novel, and his most recent work, The Book of Strange New Things, about a Christian missionary bringing the Bible to aliens on another planet. So I knew that Under the Skin was a science fiction novel, and that Isserley is in fact an alien, although I’d forgotten that the young human men are being harvested for food. (To the publishers’ credit, the blurb keeps all of this vague, at least in my edition, as does David Mitchell’s introduction.) I was somewhat surprised to find that Faber isn’t a vegetarian, given how horrifically gruesome the factory farming process is shown to be when the tables are turned and it’s young human men being castrated, shaved, de-tongued and fattened up. Under the Skin may not be critical of eating meat per se, but it’s certainly an damning indictment of factory farming, of the vast industrial nightmare that millions upon millions of sheep, cattle and pigs are fed into every day.

When I was at university I had a job at a local supermarket. It was mostly in the deli, but on Saturdays I was put in the department simply called “the meat room,” to clean up the mess after the butchers went home at noon. In gumboots and apron, a lot of this involved hosing blood off the walls and floor and fishing chunks of meat and gristle out of the drain-catchers. None of this bothered me one bit. But flip it around, create a scenario where aliens or monsters casually carve up human beings and then spray down the mess, and suddenly it becomes a scene literally out of a horror movie. (Or out of the opening of the fifth season of The Walking Dead, one of the only parts of a generally mediocre series that I found incredibly well-filmed, conceptualised and physically stressful to watch.)

The counterpoint, of course, is that human beings are intelligent creatures. But I’m sure that doesn’t make much difference to the cow. I don’t even like to kill a bug, and if society collapsed and I suddenly found myself having to live off the land, there’s very little doubt in my mind that I’d go vegetarian rather than kill animals by my own hand. The conveniences of modern society keep the living, breathing animals away from me, so I can cheerfully go on eating meat without having my delicate sensibilities harmed. Hypocritical, I know, but there you have it. (I’m practically a vegetarian in London anyway because I can’t afford meat, hey-ooo!) Under the Skin isn’t going to turn me vegetarian, but it’s definitely an unsettling and terrifying read. Highly recommended.