Monday, 31 October 2011

Under the Skin | Michel Faber's dark story | why I'll never go hitchhiking

Beware: Plot Spoilers

There's a lot of excitement in Scotland right now related to the fact that we've seen a series of biggish Hollywood films being made here.
Movies mean well groomed A-list stars, and after Brad Pitt and the zombies in the summer, some are getting into a froth about Scarlett Johansson, who is over here filming Under the Skin, a movie based on Michel Faber's 2000 novel.

If you know Crimson Petal and the White (2002) but not this earlier book, you should read it simply for the shock value. this is a sparely written, contemporary yarn which does something a lot of publishers dream of. It transcends genre. No really, it does.
It starts off feeling like a literary thriller and turns into a sci fi. But with a sort of Hannibal Lecter element that many will find hard to stomach.
It is a hugely enjoyable read. Faber writes with economy and if the plot lacks a genuinely substantial subplot, this doesn't matter all that much. It races along for most of its just short of 300 pages. My one complaint is that I could have done with one or two fewer hitchers in the first half. But really, it isn't much of a complaint at all. The book works as it is.
Johansson plays Sisserley, the lead character in the book. It's hard to talk about this novel without committing spoilers so turn away now if you really don't know anything about the story. Sisserley, we discover fairly early on, is an alien. But the author is clever in the way he introduces this fact and the nature of her alien-ness.
She has been surgically transformed to look like an attractive female -- to lure male hitchers into her car. Scarlet is far better looking than most people assume Sisserley is in the book, but you can see Hollywood's point. Even in the novel she is meant to be sexually alluring, and as this is a film, you'd hardly cast an unattractive actress for such a role.
If the film is a success it will bring a lot of readers to the novel, deservedly so. But I wonder how many will see it as sci fi or as something else. Sci fi has a dodgy image. Many serious readers are turned off by characters from other planets called Vess or Esswiss. And yet, if the book is well executed, the genre shouldn't really matter...

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