Here is how it begins:
Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up.
And this is how it ends:
‘Here I come’, she said.
This is Under the Skin by Michel Faber, a book that has only grown in relevance since it was first published by Canongate in 2000.
The Dutch born writer, who grew up in Australia and had been living in Ross-shire since the early nineties, first came to prominence with a short story that won the Scotland on Sunday MacAllan prize in 1997. In ’98 this and other stories were published in the collection Some Rain Must Fall. Under the Skin was Faber’s first novel, followed in 2002 by The Crimson Petal and The White. In the years since, there has been another short story collection, novellas, and novels, including, most recently, 2014’s The Book of Strange New Things. Latterly, Faber has turned to poetry in an attempt to make sense of the death from cancer of his long-term partner, Eva Youren, in 2014.
I saw Faber give a reading once, when I was a callow undergrad. This would have been about 2006. The event took place in a room on the 7th floor of the David Hume Tower. When I turned up, Faber was sitting on the floor in the corridor outside, in murmured conversation with a woman who I afterwards realised must have been Eva. He did the reading and took a few questions. I asked a fairly daft one which he dismissed out of hand. I felt foolish, but still went up at the end and asked him to sign my copy of Some Rain Must Fall.
My question was about Under the Skin, my favourite book at that time. It was the first contemporary novel I had read that imbued the Highlands, where I had grown up, with the sinister strangeness that as a reader I craved.
Even in the nacreous hush of a winter dawn, when the mists were still dossed down in the fields on either side, the A9 could not be trusted to stay empty for long.
Just this weekend past, I re-read the novel for the first time in years. To my delight it was every bit as good as I remembered.
I could talk for a long time here about how Faber observes the world from an alien perspective better than any other writer I know. About how he is the literary complement to the popularisation of cosmology that we might call ‘The Professor Brian Cox effect’.
I could also mention the perfection of his plotting. The fact that the novel unfolds, incident by incident, in a way that seems completely unforced. That the ending, though shocking, comes as an inevitable consequence of everything that’s gone before.
But I’ll not discuss any of these things, partly because I don’t have time, partly because I just want to give a hand to Faber for creating one of the great supporting character casts of any novel, with surely the fewest number of words.
I’m talking about the hitchers.
Dieter the German med-school drop-out, the kindly whelk man, the mad John Martyn fan, the yellow overalled would-be rapist (sticky end), poor decent William Cameron who catches Isserley at a bad moment, the embittered failed dog breeder who blames Brussels for all his woes (prescient that one), the serial killer who met his match and left his dog…
Each of them, burned into the brain in just a few pages of dialogue and interior monologue.
Now that is characterisation – with an economy that no film can ever hope to match.
Yes, the film of Under the Skin might have had Scarlett Johannsen, but it still isn’t a patch on the book.