Review and Summary of Under the Skin by author Michel Faber
Spoiler Free Review
I’ve been meaning to read Under the Skin for years. When I first saw the movie directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson I was blown away. It was beautiful and sad and it haunted me for days. I literally couldn’t stop thinking about it and what it all meant. If you can, I strongly recommend watching it without first watching a trailer. The trailer they put out reveals WAY too much, it’s a crime.
I quickly found out that it was a novel first but I didn’t want to take away from the movie so I waited. It’s been years now and I still vividly remember that movie. It’s really one that sticks with you. But I finally decided to see if the book could at all live up to the masterpiece created for the screen.
Under the Skin is a good example of the movie being different from the book but both are still quite good. The movie is an adaptation of the essence of the book, not a literal translation in plot and characters. But the sadness and otherworldly hopelessness is still palpable. I’m excited to rewatch it now and see if I understand it more as well.
The book is about Isserley, a young woman in Scotland who traverses the long highways looking to pick up hitchhikers. Pretty much everything after she picks up the first one is going to be a spoiler, if you’re okay with that continue to the summary of the book below.
The main things to know going into Under the Skin is that it will be bizarre. Prepare yourself for a wholly original story that crosses genres like science fiction, social commentary drama, and tragedy. But I guarantee you that it will be poignant and unsettling.
The author does a magnificent job of withholding information until the time is just right. The mystery is maintained for a good portion of the novel before the heavy reality comes crashing onto the reader.
Isserley is a unique protagonist who suffers with the best of them. You’ll find yourself rooting for her even after you shouldn’t. I never stopped sympathizing with her. It’s a testament to author Faber to garner so much sympathy for such a unrelatable character. She isn’t exactly an anti-hero, she really is something else entirely, something you’ve never seen before.
It’s best to go into this book relatively blind. Just let the mystery unfold for you, it’s truly rewarding.
It’s also quite well written. The descriptions and imagery paint a sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, but always enigmatic picture of our own world gone askew. I could vividly picture each character and event as though it was in my own memory.
Please read Under the Skin, please watch the movie. Share it with your friends. But above all else, discuss it and how it made you feel.
5/5 human eyes 👁👁👁👁👁
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Under the Skin Summary
Under the Skin is the kind of novel that defies genre. It’s part science fiction, part thriller, part mystery, but it’s also something else. It has a unique quality that is difficult to define. It makes you question yourself and your own humanity.
Years ago I stumbled upon the movie version of Under the Skin. I am so happy I watched it without knowing anything about it. It’s the kind of movie best gone into blind and without spoilers. And honestly, so is the book, not to turn you away from my own site but maybe just save this for after you’ve read this book and watched this movie that I both highly recommend.
The movie haunted me for days. I couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that came with watching this mysterious woman capture these hitch-hikers and watching what became of them. I also couldn’t shake the sadness that ended the movie, I was heartbroken in a way I still don’t fully understand.
I knew I didn’t want to read the book too soon for fear of ruining the movie. So here we are, years later, and that movie is still vivid in my memory but I had to finally give the book a shot.
The book starts almost identically to the movie but it veers pretty dramatically in the rest of the plot. So if you’re thinking you’ve seen the movie so you already know what happens, you’re wrong.
The book starts with Isserley, a young woman who drives around the highways of Scottland looking for lonely hitchers to pick up. We don’t yet know much about her and the author makes it seem that there are sexual undertones to her task to throw us completely off course.
The reader is led to believe that she is horny for hitchers until she flips a toggle near her windshield wipers that sends needles through the passenger seat to inject them with icpathua, a mysterious drug that knocks them out. Icpathua is fictional, made up for the purposes of this novel.
She drags the hitchers, whom she refers to as vodsels, back to her farm where workers eagerly await her haul of the day. We know at this point that she does not look like these other workers, somehow she is disfigured compared to them.
“Most distracting of all, though, was not the threat of danger but the allure of beauty”Under the Skin
Under the Skin contains a lot of withheld information. There are many details left out until just the right moment. The whole book contains a palpable air of mystery that is just delightful.
The farm is anticipating a visit from the big boss’ son, Amlis Vess. He’s from wherever home is for Isserley. Everyone is nervous and no one knows what his intentions for the visit are.
Within a day of his arrival he inexplicably releases four vodsels from their pens. Isserley is tasked with helping to retrieve them in the middle of the night. After finding and killing the vodsels she furiously finds Amlis Vess and it is then we get our first description of what everyone besides Isserley actually looks like.
She says he is a very handsome human being but then goes on to describe what I pictured as a large and magnificent wolf who walks on all fours and has a large bushy tail. Her home species calls themselves human beings but they all look like this. Like wolves, maybe with 6 fingered humanesque hands.
She’s been surgically altered to look like a vodsel, what the reader would picture as a human. She is now forced to walk upright on two legs, she shaves every inch of her body below the scalp, and has huge breast implants to make her alluring to male vodsels.
Now, if this doesn’t have your attention I cannot help you. I have no recommendations for you, we have very different tastes.
Amlis Vess says he doesn’t approve of killing animals for their meat or any other reason. He came to see the farm for himself and is horrified by the conditions of the vodsels. They’ve been castrated, had their tongues removed, and restrained to be fattened over the course of a month before being butchered and shipped back home.
Isserley considers this an ignorant position and resents him for negating her very hard work. She also hates herself for finding him attractive and feeling so monstrous in appearance next to him.
He tries to convert her to his moral high ground by showing an apparent intelligence in the vodsels. She is slowly beginning to question everything about her position. Why she is the one to be disfigured and in constant pain, why she has to live in poor conditions, and why she doesn’t even get to enjoy the spoils of her labor.
She decides to clear her head by going to work out on the road. She picks up a hitcher like she always does but this one is different. He rapes her mouth and very nearly rapes her everywhere else, she is able to defend herself but only after being fully degraded and emotionally scarred.
On her way back to the farm she spontaneously picks up the next hitcher she sees and decides to take him back for processing without doing her usual screening to see if they’ll be missed anywhere. Through his point of view the reader knows he’s a loving family man.
Isserley takes the family man to the farm and demands to see him being processed. She watches them remove his tongue and testicles but still feels no release of satisfaction. She then demands to see one being butchered and gets overly excited as the vodsel is killed.
This causes a bit of a breakdown and she is also nursing injuries from the attack. Amlis Vess takes care of her and they bond. Unfortunately he is leaving to go back to his life of luxury in the morning. He’s had his fill of seeing the working class first hand, time to go back to the ivory tower.
The Vess Corporation is looking to expand production. They want Isserley to capture a female vodsel with viable eggs. The assumption is that they will be breeding an army of women to replace her. She’ll no longer need to pick up hitchers and this will essentially make her obsolete and completely without purpose.
At this she decides to leave the farm for good. She’ll figure out a plan along the way. She picks up a frantic hitchhiker with the intention of helping instead of harming him but she hits a patch of ice and they crash hard into a tree.
The hitcher is flown from the vehicle and she’s crushed completely below the waist. She understands that she is dying and almost finds the release comical. She hits the self destruct on her car blowing it and all evidence of her human existence away with her.
Isserley’s tale is absolutely tragic. She was a poor woman imprisoned in slavery to do a difficult job for no reward. She gave her body, her soul, her everything to a company that would replace her without a second thought. And she’s killed nearly the instant she decides to live for herself.
Under the Skin is a tragedy more than it is anything else. I fully recommend both the book and the movie but I would not say that the movie is a full adaptation. There are quite a few changes but I don’t think that’s a bad thing in this case. The essence of her sorrow is still there and I think that’s the most important part.
5/5 human eyes 👁👁👁👁👁
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