Saturday 18 February 2012

The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric: review by Gillian Philip

Please note that this review is of an adult novel.


'Do I wish to go on a long walk in the dark with this person?'

It's the question Minguillo Fasan suggests we ask ourselves as he begins his tale of torture, murder and human skin, so the Dearly Beloved Reader can't say she hasn't been warned. But Minguillo, the mad and bad son of a wealthy Venetian businessman, clearly assumes we will be enchanted by his company, even if it's against our better judgement. I know I was.

The core of this darkly fascinating book is Minguillo's undying hatred for the sister - Marcella - who is the rightful heir to his father's house and fortune. That's a problem he resolves fairly quickly, but Minguillo's enmity is not satisfied by cheating Marcella out of her inheritance, and he is intent on spending his life destroying her.

If Minguillo's evils had been solely related by other characters, his relentless malevolence might have been tiresome, but he tells us of his deeds himself, assuming the Adorable Reader's complicity. And he is very funny, as well as vile.

Luckily for our sympathies (and probably our immortal souls), he is not the only narrator: there are four others - Marcella herself; the semi-literate family retainer Gianni; the saintly and skin-obsessed Doctor Santo Aldobrandini; and a nun who is raving mad and homicidal to boot.

Skipping first-person points of view is notoriously hard to do without confusing the reader, but Michelle Lovric pulls it off brilliantly - I never once had to check back because I doubted whose words I was reading. The five voices are very distinct, and distinguished by fairly unobtrusive changing typefaces; their wildly varying stories weave together neatly for the ending.

Now, I've a terrible habit of quietly rooting for the bad guy - especially when the heroine is as saintly and luminous as Marcella. Yes, she's too good - her chief quality is resilience, which is not entirely to her advantage, and occasionally made me want to kick her. So this is where my admiration for the book really sparked: I did not once want Minguillo to triumph. He and the insane religious zealot Sor Loreta are much the most entertaining of the narrators, but that never tipped over, for me, into liking or sympathising with them. Maybe that's partly because they are (one each) responsible for the horrible deaths of my two favourite characters. (One of these deaths made me yell out loud, because I'd been nursing a faint hope of xxx making it back into a future book.)

The Book of Human Skin is not for the Squeamish Reader, as Minguillo frequently reminds us - but he does have a last barb to fling at us before he goes: 'You loved to be shocked, and you craved more.'

Maybe he's right, because I certainly couldn't put the book down. Or only in the very dark hours, when I'd begin to have horrible thoughts about its cover.



Penny Dolan said...

Such an excellent review! Have this fascinating book on the reading pile, but by my armchair rather than up by my bed until I know it - and me - better. I remember the last TV Book Club panel really seemed astonished by the book and loved it, but it's other recommendations, such as yours, that convince me.

Essie Fox said...

This is a brilliant book. I loved it.

Sue Purkiss said...

A *wicked* book, in both senses of the word!

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