I am a big fan of Michelle Lovric’s work for both adults and children (her Undrowned Child was my book of 2009 by a country mile), so when the lovely Katie from Bloomsbury sent me a review copy of The Book of Human Skin, I was really looking forward to getting stuck into another densely woven, evocative story.
So, Lovric starts her tale with ‘This is going to be a little uncomfortable’, and she isn’t kidding. From sadism and violence, to insanity, to body dysmorphia and worse, Lovric takes the reader from 18thC Venice (she is devoted to the city and there is no one who writes about Venice with a darker or more delicate touch) to a Peruvian convent. The story is told by a bizarre cast of characters, creating a chattering cacophany of distinct voices clamouring to be heard. Whilst this does not make for the most easily accessible of narratives, this is definitely one to stick with and the pages soon turn themselves.
The story is fascinating, and Lovric’s knowledge of Venice’s trading empire shines through: the Fasan family, where her story centres, are traders in Peruvian silver and also Peruvian drugs. When only son Minguillo’s inheritance is compromised by his sadism, which borders on insanity, his little sister Marcella is set to benefit. Minguillo begins a campaign not only to weaken his sister’s mind, but destroy her personality. It is not enough that he drives her to incontinence through terror, he cripples her and later compromises her sanity. The things Minguillo does to Marcella are brutal and bear the special character of sibling torture and yet it is the little things Lovric throws in regarding his treatment of animals or distant, irrelevant figures that deepen the reader’s knowledge of the chasm of awfulness that is Minguillo Fasan.
Add to this story a terrifying, passive-aggressive Holy anorexic (one of the most unpleasant characters I have encountered between the pages of a book), a doctor obsessed with human skin, a loyal servant, a Scottish merchant and a cigar-smoking nun and you have an especially Lovric sort of read. The book is ambitious, and the story not without snags, but her knowledge of setting, period and the essential weakness and isolation of human nature makes it a triumph. Michelle Lovric is a pitiless writer, who revels in creating a cast of lovable rabbits, then setting a mink loose amongst them and watching it go about its feral business. Remember, it’s going to be a little uncomfortable….
The Book of Human Skin is out now, cover price £12.99, and can be bought from all goode bookshoppes and all that, and also in Mr Amazon’s Emporium. This is Michelle Lovric’s website; it is well worth a look and if you have never read her work before, I recommend it.
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