One of most eagerly anticipated film of recent years, at least round these parts, was Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’, much of which was shot on the streets of Glasgow, with an (almost) unrecognisable Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. You can read my review of the film over at Scots Whay Hae!, but news of the film sent me back to the source novel, Michel Faber’s ‘Under The Skin’, a book which blew me away when it was published back in 2000, and now I have re-read it it is even better than I remember, offering up lots of new secrets, insights and in-jokes second time around.
The book focuses on the life and work of Isserley, a very unusual woman whose job is to pick up suitable hitchhikers on the A9 and take them back to Ablach Farm in the Scottish Highlands for processing. Only the finest specimens are selected, and she takes her time making sure they are suitable for her employer’s requirements. She is the hunter and gatherer who has been adapted for a very specific purpose.
* If you haven’t read the book, then the rest of this column contains spoilers. To enjoy the full affect go away and do so first, then come back to us.*
Isserley is part of a team of aliens who have come to earth to farm the best humans for their meat, which is to be sent back to their home planet as a prohibitively expensive delicacy. Isserley takes to the road to pick up those men who won’t be missed, therefore preventing attention falling on their operation. To pass as a human she has been shaved and has had major surgery to allow her to walk on two legs rather than the usual four. She has also had a pair of large breasts added to her to seduce the men to get into the vehicle in the first place. This has rendered her looking “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. The sad thing is, this simple and primitive plan works as only one of those who takes a seat beside her looks past her chest to notice that she is a very strange looking woman indeed. Actually, the sad thing is that this is quite believable.
Isserley feels nothing for these men to begin with, and has no desire to see what happens once she hands them over to the farm hands, but the arrival of Amlis Vess, a handsome young aristocrat from home, causes her to consider what she is doing. He is, for want of a better term, an animal rights activist, and believes that this farming of local livestock is wrong. When he releases some of the captives it causes havoc, as they are no longer in any shape to look after themselves, and have to be hunted down and recaptured or destroyed. He is an idealist with no understanding of what happens on the farm, but his actions cause Isserley to have her own doubts.
Faber goes into detail about the processes which the captives have to go through to be fit for purpose, and they are truly horrific. They are also truly accurate when you compare them to many of the farming techniques undertaken to sate our love of, for example, veal, foie gras, or even a simple roast chicken. The comparisons aren’t subtle, but they are very effective as a result.
Isserley begins to realise that these men she picks up all have stories to tell, and people who love them. Her own isolation and situation, with her now being neither one thing nor the other, means that she begins to understand them more. Crucially, she also begins to understand their language more, which is when she starts to feel empathy, and that puts her in a dangerous position. Her growing belief that she shares something with these creatures proves to be her downfall, as she comes to realise that what they share is also the ability to be cruel and destructive
For our musical interlude this month it has to be the great John Martyn, who one of Isserley’s hitchhikers waxes lyrical about. This is a live version of ‘Sweet Little Mystery’ followed by the trailer for the ‘Under The Skin’ movie, which I highly recommend:
‘Under The Skin’ is one of those unputdownable books; you have to get to the very end to get the whole story, and then you want to start all over again to see what clues you missed first time round. It is so layered that you keep coming across connections to other films and books when you least expect it, all of which adds to your understanding of what Faber is trying to achieve. My favourite is the use of the line from the original Planet of the Apes, “Get your stinking paws off me” which Isserley utters when she is attacked by one of her passengers, with the rest of the quote “you damn dirty ape” only implied.
You can read ‘Under the Skin’ on many levels; sci-fi thriller, horror, satire or even philosophical treatise, but however you do you can’t get away from how well it is written. It is not a case of style over substance though, and Faber is always looking at the bigger picture. By tackling some important themes with humour and horror he has managed to make a book about aliens farming humans in the Scottish Highlands one of the most involving books you will read in a long time.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: It can be argued that Scotland is the birthplace of the historical novel, with Sir Walter Scott being the granddaddy of them all. Unfairly derided by some, such novels continue to be hugely popular, and the history of Scotland remains particularly attractive.
Andrew Greig is perhaps best known for his poetry, but he is also a novelist, and his 2013 novel, ‘Fair Helen’, is a fantastic addition to the historical genre. Based on the Border ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’, it is a love story rich with Scots’ language and imagery, and if you are not familiar with the Border ballads, it is the perfect introduction to one of Scotland’s finest storytelling traditions.