Review: Under the Skin, Michel Faber

under_the_skin1I had never heard of this book until I happened to see the movie on a plane recently – after 5 minutes, I was thinking “What the hell am I watching?” but I couldn’t turn it off. When it was over, I thought “What the hell have I just watched?” At the time I was annoyed to have invested so long in watching a movie that could have been much shorter for all that “actually happened” – but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It is so mesmeric, the images so striking, the music so alien, and just so horrifying – all in the most minimalist, stripped down style imaginable. You work hard throughout the movie to try to make meaning from what you are seeing, and even so it leaves most things unanswered or open to interpretation. So I went straight to the book afterwards hoping to find a few more clues – only to discover it was 9000 times more straightforward.

The alien in the movie doesn’t even have a name – her mission, her history are complete unknowns, and pretty much remain so. In the book, you find out about all of these things in a much more straightforward, linear fashion. The mesmeric, sexually predatory, menacing mood is not present (in fact you feel rather sorry for Isserley) and you don’t get that sense of pure alien-ness that you do from the movie. This was my one issue with the book – Isserley was SO human that I couldn’t quite understand how the whole premise for the book could occur. On the other hand though, as a work of science fiction, it is satisfying to learn about Isserley’s world, its class structure, what life is like for its inhabitants, on why they are sending people to earth, what they sacrifice in order to come, and why they would do so. You learn more than you probably ever wanted to know about “vodsel”, including a few hideous scenes that you surely won’t be forgetting in a hurry. The themes of what it means to be human, and of the blurred boundaries between human, beast and monster, and of the need for connection and home, come through strongly in both the movie and the book however. If you like science fiction, this is a thought-provoking read that will stay with you.