Every so often, I wonder about the idea that books should be marketed with blank white covers. We get so many cues from the appearance of books, the argument goes, that we lose our ability to make an unbiased judgement of their contents. If books carried no identifying features – maybe not even a title, and certainly not an author – and instead were only identified by serial numbers, would assessments be more honest? Would it put new authors and old on an equal footing?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but not one that lends itself to easy testing. No authors? No titles? Never going to happen. Every so often, though, you do get books marketed with minimal blurb. With unrevealing, catch-all covers obscuring the content of the work, leaving the reader navigating blind. Michael Faber’s Under the Skin - or at least, the edition of it that greengolux lent me – is one such book. The blurb gives the barest of teases as to the plot, noting:
A first novel that defies categorisation […] Macabre, beautifully written, totally entertaining and ultimately deeply affecting, Under the Skin is a quite brilliant debut novel.

It’s an appropriate strategy, since – as is suggested by the title – the whole work is about surface and depth, about challenging and perhaps undermining the reader’s assumptions.

Which is nice, but makes it pretty damn hard to review. So I’m going to cheat, and go for the spoilerish approach.

Under the Skin is an interesting, if flawed work. It successfully confronts reader expectations in some areas, but at the expense of others. It’s worth taking a look at, particularly if you manage, as I did, to pick it up without knowing what to expect.

If you want to know the why behind this judgement, then read on...

Under the Skin tells the story of Isserly who, when introduced to the reader, is cruising through the Highlands of Scotland looking for hitch-hikers. She’s ruthless in her assessment of potentials: Scrawny is out, beefy is in. She’s been doing this for years, we are told, and always worries that the next one won’t match up. When she finds a specimen she’s satisfied with, the reader is treated to an acutely observed character confrontation – the first of many scattered throughout the book – and as such, it is something of a shock to the system when she flips a switch and sends needles loaded with icpathua stabbing into her passenger’s body. From the writing, this is not what the reader expects, and even after it’s happened it’s not explained; we don’t know why Isserly has done it, or even exactly what she’s done.

It’s a good few dozen pages more before we start to work out who – or rather, what – Isserly is. She’s a farmer. She takes the vodsels that society has forgotten about and takes them back to base, where her colleagues process them for transport back home. Voddissin is a delicacy – more, an extravagant luxury.

Isserly is an alien, modified to live among humans and cull them for eating.

That’s the pulpy meat that underlies Michael Faber’s smooth, elegant prose. This is an old-fashioned SF horror novel, but it's written in the style of the literary mainstream. It’s written as a character study, a story of alienation. Isserly, whose body is constantly wracked with pain from the surgical alterations she has had to undergo, fits neither with her people nor with ours. She cruises the A9 for human meat, yet she’s a sympathetic viewpoint character.

And that’s the paradox of the novel: It’s a character study, and a remarkably effective and engaging one, but it shouldn’t be. The book is a strange mix of realistically alien physiology and implausibly familiar emotions. Isserly is an alien, yet she – and all the other, unmodified, alien characters in the novel – think and act in recognisably human ways. This fits with the smartly-dressed-pulp underpinnings of the story, but it’s still frustrating.

In fact, it’s most frustrating because there are still inconsistencies here and there even on the novel’s own terms. Isserly is the primary viewpoint character; everything we read is filtered through her perception, and the language Faber use cleverly reflects this. There’s not much alien terminology, just the odd word, here and there, but always when the reader needs them. Unfortunately, it means that metaphors are pretty much a no-no. For the most part, Faber sidesteps this trap but every so often a human idiom creeps in, a comparison that in context seems deeply strange; and when that happens, it jars, because the rest of the novel is so smooth. If it was just Isserly making human-like comparisons it could be explained as the effect of ‘going native’, but it’s not.

So as I said, I consider Under the Skin an interesting book, but flawed. It’s unusual to read a work where the message and the style of delivery are so obviously opposed, and fun to read one where that opposition is spun into a clever central motif. On a narrative level, Faber’s novel is enjoyable to read; but in the final analysis, it doesn’t quite dovetail neatly enough.