100 Essential Books – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (Bloomsbury 2010)

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The latest edition of newbooks magazine (Nb86 Autumn 2015) has just come out and is available to purchase by following this link.  It is the fifteenth anniversary issue and contains interviews with amongst others Sophie Hannah and Patrick Ness.  There are a number of my reviews in the Directory section together with the third and last of my contributions for the best books of the 21st Century.  (Previous editions have featured my championing of “The Book Thief” and “The Crimson Petal And The White“).  As a little taster for the magazine here is my review of “The Book Of Human Skin”, my final candidate for the Ultimate 21st Century read.

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At the centre of this audacious novel is Minguillo Fasan, one of the most malevolent characters in literary fiction.  He is without any redeeming features. He manipulates, plots and seeks to destroy others and yet, he is strangely attractive to us readers.  He knows this.  From the start he points out the question we should ask ourselves as readers is “Do I wish to go on a long walk in
the dark with this person?”  We all know the answer.  Towards the end he taunts us, “Tell me that you did not love what I wrote”.  I absolutely did.  Minguillo is a villain with a catchphrase, “This is going to be a little uncomfortable” and he’s not wrong, but it’s a gleeful discomfort. There is much pleasure to be had amongst the pain.

Fasan is one of five narrators in the book who take turns to tell their tale; Marcella, his beleaguered sister has the unfortunate role of heroine and has to endure much because of this.  Gianni, the valet, adds much humour with his phonetic account, which will have you seeing familiar words in a completely different light.  Sister Loreta is a fanatic nun in a Peruvian monastery, who can give Minguillo a run for his money with her machinations.  Last of all is Doctor Santo with an interest in skin conditions and Marcella.

Set in Venice and Peru in the early years of the nineteenth century, this is a book about revenge and the lengths gone to ensure an inheritance.  It is also, as implied by the title, a book about skin.  Minguillo collects books covered in it, “anthropodermic bibliopegy” and sells “The Tears Of Santa Rosa” to improve the quality of Venetian ladies’ skin (they believe it is made from nuns sobbings rather than lead).  He is a man with “flocculent skin” who, he tells us, has “lived his skin to the limit.” Others have their skin disfigured by their own actions or  by the actions of others.  The Doctor seeks to cure skin complaints and in the background there is Napoleon, a man driven by his itchiness and other symptoms of his dermatological problems.

This book is delightfully gruesome, outrageous, very funny and heart-rending.  The incorporation of history into the narrative is achieved seamlessly. It’s dark, edgy and cruel but the reader is driven on by the hope that the author will not leave us floundering in the dark for too long.  There’s an escape sequence which has me on the edge of my seat every time I read it.  The research is superb.  In a detailed Historical Notes section at the back of the book Lovric separates facts from fiction for us.  I was quite relieved there was so much factual basis and it wasn’t all the imagination of Michelle Lovric.  I was getting anxious that one day I might meet her in a dark alley!  This is an excellent book.

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The Book Of Human Skin was published by Bloomsbury in 2010

As a postcript to this review – there’s been quite a bit of human skin on this blog recently.  William Burke, one half of Burke and Hare, whose partner in crime is the subject of my recent  blog post “Seeking Mr Hare” was reputed to have ended up with his skin as a book cover!

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