reading my way through every country in the world…
Currently Browsing: Scotland

#10 Scotland – Your mother always warned you not to hitchhike!

Under the Skin

By Michel Faber

Canongate Books, 2010

Scarlett Johansson will play the lead role in the upcoming film version of Under the Skin

“Isserley always drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her”.

So begins Under the Skin…but before you jump to conclusions and think this must be some sort of weird, porno trash about a desperate chick cruising the streets hapless hitchhikers to do the horizontal tango with, you need to read on and find out just what “use” Isserley, the central character, has in mind for her “specimens”.

In a reversal of many stereotypes, Under the Skin sees the driver (and the female) as predator and the hitchhiker (male) as prey. Also reversing the natural order of things, humans, at least as we conceive of them, have dropped down a few rungs in the food chain and in the order of species.

The main character Isserley is an alien creature who yet considers herself and those of her “race” to be human. Contrastingly, what we know as humans are referred to as “vodsels”.

Formerly walking on all fours, covered in fur and having a tail and a “vulpine snout”, Issereley volunteered to be surgically modified to resemble a “vodsel” (human) and put to work every day driving the A9 through the Scottish Highlands looking for hitchhikers. This choice enabled her to escape what she perceived as a much worse fate: a lifetime in the “New Estates” – a subterranean hellhole composed of bauxite and ash where she would have been put to work in a “moisture filtration plant” or “oxygen factory”.

Instead, Isserley spends her days hitchhiker hunting. And not just any hitchhikers – Isserlely is looking for prime meat: what you might call the fillet steak of men despite often getting more than her share of chuck meat. Luring these men into her car and then drugging them, Isserley takes these hitchhikers back to her base -  “Ablach Farm”  – where their “use” is slowly and painstakingly revealed to the reader over the course of the book. I am not going to tell you what that use is – part of the appeal of this book is that it literally does get under your skin and then makes it crawl. Indeed, it should probably not be read while eating or drinking – maybe even wait half an hour after meals to consume this novel, just to be on the safe side, of course.

Variously described as thriller, sci-fi and political commentary, Under the Skin defies a neat or single genre categorisation. However, given that it does have a strong sci-fi nature, it made me wonder whether you can really get a true sense of “place” through this form of fiction. In this case, I think you can as a large part of the appeal of this novel is Faber’s evocative, haunting and almost eerie descriptions of the Scottish Highlands where:

“there was always something more going on than picture postcards allowed. Even in the nacreous hush of a winter dawn, when the mists were still dossed down in the field on either side, the A9 could not be trusted to stay empty for too long. Furry carcasses of unidentifiable forest creatures littered the asphalt , fresh every morning, each of tem a frozen moment in time when some living thing had mistaken the road for its natural habitat”.

As Isserley covers great distances each day in her “battered red Corolla”, picking up hitchhikers from towns all along the A9, there is also plenty of opportunity for Faber to indulge in political and social comment about these towns and their inhabitants. Alness, for example, is described as “Little Glasgow”, a place where “illegal pharmaceuticals were freely available, leading to broken windows and females giving birth too young”. Contrastingly, in Inverness, she was likely to find “hitchhikers who were more organised and purposeful” but would have less luck in the “comatose village of Fearn”.

The A9 highway through the Scottish Highlands

Perhaps the best description of “place” in Under the Skin is saved for Moray Firth, the seaside area where Isserley lives; its staggering beauty very much a part of what attracted Isserley to undergo the brutal transformation from four legs to two and all that followed.

“(S)tretching endlessly behind her and ahead of her was the peninsula’s edge, whose marshy pasture, used for grazing sheep, ended abruptly at the brink of the tide in a marrow verge of rock, curdled and sculpted by prehistoric fire and ice…each shell, each pebble, each stone had been made what is was by aeons of submarine and subglacial massage…”

Moray Firth

Under the Skin reminded me a lot of David Lynch’s films and television shows: where atmosphere is heavy and entrancing and the plot is complicated, engrossing yet not completely resolved or entirely satisfactory. It will keep you awake at night reading and then thinking about it afterwards and it paints a completely different picture of Scotland to that provided by other famous novels such as Trainspotting and Lanark.

From hitchhikers to wind-up birds, things get even stranger next time when we will be heading to Japan…

The Literary Nomad xx

General reading value: 4.5/5
Armchair travel value: 3.5/5

More on Scotland…

A9 and some of the towns in Under the Skin

Capital: Edinburgh

Population: 5,194,000

Area: 78,772km2

Language: English

Religion: Christianity

Currency: Pound sterling

Delay your stay: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Lanark by Alisdair Gray; The Crow Road by Iain banks; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark; To the Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf; Like by Ali Smith; Sunsey Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon; The Inspector Rebus series of novels by Ian Rankin; 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith.

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens