This is the first of my choices: ‘The Book of Human Skin’ by Michelle Lovric.
I picked this one particularly from the ones on offer (see the full list here) as it did not possess the type of curly, cursive handwriting-esque lettering that often marks out a ‘moving family saga’ (a positive for me) and also Joanne Harris had been quoted on the front using the word ‘horrific’. So far, so intriguing (and I’ve already read, and loved, 'A Visit from the Goon Squad', so couldn't review that again).
So what’s this book about? It’s about Marcella and Minguillo Fasan, two Venetian siblings who are locked in a twisted game of cat-and-mouse as their father’s Peruvian-silver-mine-derived-wealth and the splendid Palazzo Espagnol where they live are set to go to Marcella, the younger of the siblings, upon their father’s death. Minguillo, not being one to shrink from a challenge or the murder of a sibling (he has already dispatched his older sister Riva, aged 4, which had a small part to play in the father not wanting him to inherit his property) sets about trying to disinherit her, making her by turn a cripple, an asylum inmate on account of her fabricated nimphomania and a nun high up in the Peruvian Andes. Oh, and also, deliberately incontinent. Let’s just say, he’s not a nice chap. The story pivots on the attempts of Minguillo to destroy Marcella and her quietly stoic attempts to resist.
That’s the plot line anyway; what it’s really about is pain, in all its guises: physical and mental, direct and consequential, as well as its legacy, its inevitability, its endurance, and the sweet and twisted pleasure that it can sometimes afford. I’m aware that that doesn’t make it sound much fun, but it is; this book is witty and delectable, ripe with gleeful insistence at the ostentation of the characters - of which, Minguillo included, there are some humdingers - and the fantastical audacity of the plot line (which, as Lovric’s research summary insists, was not so fantastical at all), which sees Marcella’s life turned by degree into a living hell.
It’s rich and nasty and draws you in like an illness, but never becomes too much as you are always being switched to a different viewpoint (there are four) and a new perspective on the connoisseurship of suffering. And when you are reminded quite as often as we are throughout the book, from the first page to the 466th, that ‘this is going to be a little uncomfortable’, you slip into a different mindset, I think, where you are both repelled and compelled by the revolting events on the page. I know I was. ‘Pain never finishes, does it?’ Minguillo remarks with glee and, with this book as the proof, the ‘yes’ comes easily and stays. There is some horrifically dark comedy, a profusion of touching and sad moments and a hope that everything will turn out right and Minguillo will get his comeuppance, which all combine to make a wonderfully vivid and dynamic whole.
Minguillo’s characterisation is magnificently riotous and seductive. He’s a superlative villain: complex, colourful and self-reverential, mad as a box of frogs, of course, and shot through with savage black humour and a wry wink of knowing. He’s totally aware of the extreme reprehensibility of his actions, but takes a sadistic pleasure in them that is quite intoxicating. Listening to him in first-person also makes you fascinatingly complicit, as he himself mentions at the book’s close (‘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? ...And so, Dear Reader, my crimes became yours.’) I had chills; it was like hanging out with a witty version of Ferdinand from The Duchess of Malfi and somehow enjoying it.
His is also the perverse obsession that gives the book its name, that is, collecting books bound in you-guessed-it, and also gives the text its most enduring motif: that of human skin. This Lovric uses beautifully. In brief: Minguillo fetishes skin as an inanimate part of his grim library, but is, as I’ve hopefully illustrated by now, psychopathiclly unable to empathize or love; Santo, the doctor, loves skin as diagnostic tool and falls for Marcella upon seeing her pale and luminous skin; Sor Loreta, the fanatical Peruvian nun whose story runs parallel to the narrations of Marcella, Minguillo and Gianni, Minguillo’s valet, scours, scalds and flagellates her skin into a deformed and hideous mess as proof of her religious fervour (I’m sure it’s not onomatopoeic coincidence that it’s ‘Sore’ Loreta; gross); and in the end it’s a character with a different skin colour, in a country obsessed with skin colour (tambo, criollos, mestizos, mulatas, moriscas, sambas and sambos, negros and negras, to name but a few of the labels applied to those without limpieza de sangre), that leads Marcella to eventual rescue and salvation. It’s a wonderful motif that allows the reader to use the outward manifestation of souls as a crib sheet (Minguillo’s face is pitted and pustulated, for instance, and Marcella’s is luminous), which also provides a helpful and fortifying dose of repulsion and gore. Lovric pulls this off masterfully, reveling in the macabre as the gall that offsets the sweetness of Marcella and Santo’s love.
Cecilia Carnaro also turns up (real-life painter and fabled lover of Casanova and Byron) to provide some much needed commentary on the social injustice of a system that allowed men to overwhelm and ruin female lives in their own ‘best’ interest. Maybe the point of the disease and the human-bound books is to highlight that this is the most disturbing thing of all.
I do, however, have a few criticisms. I felt it could do with a bit more of an edit in the middle, when Marcella is travelling to the convent and Santo is saving up to follow her, as here it began to drag and I was keen for the story to move on and get to the next occurrence. Also, I was disappointed by Minguillo’s final-ish end, which didn’t quite pack the punch I was expecting. Rather than leaving him diminished and disabled in South America, I felt he should have been killed decisively in a manner that wittily pertained to his twisted obsessions and his aberrant life, such as he was somehow flayed from his own skin or died in some relation to Tupac Amaru, whose skin he forever carried with him and in whose country he was at that time residing. I know the small pox end is skin-related and time/context appropriate, but by then my taste for the macabre had been heightened and I was ready for a final flourish. Bring on the repugnant, so to speak. It was a bit of a let-down to then read about far more horrible things in the research summary that immediately followed; I felt it should have been the other way around.
Anyway, this is an excellent and memorable book that actually put me much in mind of Angela Carter’s 'The Tiger's Bride', with its fantastical Italian decadence, comments on the vulnerability of women with regard to their opprobrious male relatives and vivid, baroque language that sits just on the right side of ‘writerly’, meaning you can feel the ornaments being placed out deliberately for your amusement, backlit with the right amount of sensual and pleonastic pleasure. I’m sure nobody wants it minimalist all the time. Also, in my editions of the books (‘The Book of Human Skin’ and ‘The Tiger’s Bride’), the fonts are very similar (especially when looking at Minguillo’s) , which is perhaps indicative of an awareness of this as font is so deftly used to illustrate character in the book in question, each narrator having their own which which to express their individual voice. There is also a parallel disclosure of skin: ‘I was so unused to my own skin that to take off all my clothes involved a kind of flaying’, the ‘Tiger’s Bride’ says; in that, I can all but see Minguillo wink. I loved this, and will be reading it again. And again. And again. Bravo to Lovric for pulling off such a feat.
I guess the only thing to do now is to tune into More4’s TV Book Club towards the end of July and see if they thought the same thing...