Saturday, 23 October 2010

Michelle Lovric: The Book of Human Skin

It’s 1784. A book bound in the skin of a martyr arrives in Valparaiso. In Peru a young Catholic fanatic, Sor Loreta, is starving herself in a convent. And in Venice the wife of a rich merchant has just given birth to a son, Minguillo Fasan, born with the Devil’s mark upon him. He will grow into a sadistic rapist and murderer who will kill one of his sisters and maim the other to protect his inheritance. The novelist skilfully weaves all their stories together, pulling in a famous eighteenth century Italian woman painter, an aristocratic cigar-smoking nun and a romantic scotsman, before the breathtaking, nerve-wracking finale I missed breakfast to read.

The story is told in a variety of different voices - including a servant and a young doctor, but the most disturbing are those of Sor Loreta and Minguillo Fasan. The latter warns at the beginning of the narrative: ‘This is going to be a little uncomfortable’. And it is - but never unbearable. The thread of black humour, that Michelle Lovric uses as counterpoint, keeps the darkness in check.

According to the doctor, speaking metaphorically, ‘the book of human skin is a large volume with many pages of villainy writ upon it’ and in this novel the various tortures we inflict on fellow human beings in the form of religious or medical practice are graphically spelled out. But there is also a great deal of  comedy, particularly in the servant’s story. Gianni is barely literate and his prose is hilarious. It took me a little while to get used to his style and his idiosyncratic use of language, but once I did, I loved it.

The most attractive character is Marcella Fasan, Minguillo’s younger sister, who is clever enough and resilient enough to elude her psychopathic brother and finally achieve happiness.  'Supratutto' as they say in Italy, this is a love story.

I don’t usually read historical fiction - Wolf Hall is still glowering at me from the shelf - but I was attracted by Joanne Harris’s endorsement ‘Fabulous - funny, horrific, subversive - in short a wholly addictive read.’  She isn't exaggerating.  The novel is highly original, linguistically inventive and springing from a no-holds-barred imagination. If you’re looking for something different - this is it!

Most of all I loved the way the novelist addressed the reader directly, involving them in the narrative - this is a story that is being told to YOU and the reader is invited to become an accomplice. At the end of the book the narrator, Minguillo Fasan, poses a challenge - ‘Tell me that you did not love what I wrote. ....... did I not take you as promised, on a long walk in the dark, and did you not choose me as your guide by reading on? Is not the act of reading a congress as intimate as any carried on between lovers; with only these two parties the Reader and the Writer, behind the closed doors of the binding, alone and raptly conjoined? .... And so, Dear Reader, my crimes became yours.’