Book Review

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchhikers? And why are they always male, well-built, and alone?

An utterly unpredictable and macabre mystery, Under the Skin is a genre-defying masterpiece.


Under the Skin is a novel that’s been on my radar for quite some time although it’s also one that I knew very little about prior to reading.  I’ve not seen the film and the novel – first published in 2000 – is old enough that I’ve not seen any reviews for it, and deliberately didn’t seek any out prior to reading.  Why it appealed, I can’t really say, but it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting, and I mean that in a good way. 

She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs. Puny, scrawny specimens were no use to her.

The novel opens with Isserley driving along the A9 in Scotland looking for hitchhikers to pick up.  She isn’t just looking for any hitchhiker though – she is specifically searching for men, and only those who are well built.  She has her methods for identifying suitable candidates, driving past multiple times if needed to ensure that their size isn’t just made up of extra layers to protect them against inclement Scottish weather, eventually picking up those that she deems appropriate.  What happens to these men and why she seeks them out isn’t immediately obvious, although we know that those that she is happy with – those who won’t be missed – are drugged by a clever contraption in the passenger seat of her car and taken to a farm for reasons which are gradually revealed. 

She was a weird one all right. Half Baywatch babe, half little old lady.

Isserley herself is also something of an enigma.  She works alone and keeps to herself even when she returns to the farm, remaining apart from the men who collect her hitchhikers and take them away.  We see her mainly through the eyes of the men she picks up, and we know that she is female, shorter than average, but also that there’s often something that strikes them as a little unusual – her hands, large but narrow, for example, or the long, slender arms with particularly knobbly elbows and wrists.  That’s assuming that these men can look past her breasts, of course.  Most explain her oddities away, but I like the way in which these observations plant the seed for what is slowly revealed, hinting at something yet confirming nothing until later in the novel. 

As I began reading, I felt that Faber turned objectification on its head as Isserley seeks out suitable men who must meet a certain physical standard to be considered suitable.  For me, it mirrors the way in which women are so often judged on appearance alone (I know, I know – not all men, don’t @ me), and perhaps Faber is giving men a taste of their own medicine in this novel.  That said, there is a reason that she seeks out the men that she does, and so maybe I’m reading too much into it.  The men do spend a fair amount of their time in the car admiring / ogling Isserley’s large and unusually pert breasts, and so it’s certainly not a complete reversal of roles. 

It’s difficult to say too much without giving the plot away.  The reader is drip fed information with little explanation to begin with, and perhaps for this reason it took me a little while to get into it.  Faber’s writing here is deliberately opaque, leaving much to the reader to intuit in the beginning.  That said, it’s compelling enough that I was happy to throw myself into it.  I wanted to understand Isserley’s motivations and what happens to the men that she so deliberately seeks out, and indeed why it’s only men who fit a certain physical description that are deemed worthy.  I was soon rewarded as the purpose behind Isserley’s actions became clear, and it’s worth reading on even if – like me – you’re a little puzzled at first. 

Under the Skin is an intriguing novel that teases the reader before revealing its secrets.  It explores some significant themes including elitism and the marginalisation of those who live on the fringes of society, sexism, immigration, exploitation – topics that are as pertinent and relevant today as they were when it was first published. Perhaps what most stood out to me is that Isserley’s character allows Faber to consider what gives us our identity and defines us, looking beyond appearances to what lies under the skin. 

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