I'm looking at the books and authors that inspire me as both a writer and a reader. I've chosen eight of my favourite novels and they're presented in no particular order.
“Most distracting of all, though, was not the threat of danger but the allure of beauty."
In the remote Scottish countryside, a young woman drives up and down the motorways, eyeing up hitchhikers. She won't pick up just anyone - her passengers must be fit and strong, with no one to miss them...
While it sounds like the plot of some sleazy adult novel, Michel Faber's Under The Skin, is in fact, a hugely intelligent, genre-crossing satire about what it means to be human - warts and all.
The female protagonist, it turns out, is not human. Isserley is an extraterrestrial, sent to Earth by a wealthy corporation. Isserley picks up hitchhikers, drugs them, and takes them to a farm, where they are fattened and prepared to be turned in to meat. Humans - or 'vodsels' as we are known to them - are a rare delicacy back on Isserley's home planet; a place where the Elite live topside, and the rest of the population is forced to live an underground life of toil and despair.
The satire in Under The Skin is obvious but cleverly subverted. Corporate greed, factory farming, exploitation of workers, and attitudes to gender all come under fire. And it all works horrifyingly well because Faber puts us where we're not supposed to be - at the bottom of the food chain. Isserley's race identifies itself as 'human', while we are seen merely as animals - dinner on legs. The process of preparing humans for consumption is described in disturbing detail - and while not for the faint-hearted, is not dissimilar to what goes on in thousands of slaughterhouses all over the world.
Isserley's initial cold regard for the people she meets makes her a difficult character to empathise with. But then, as we hear of the painful and disfiguring procedures she has undergone to look more 'vodsel' and more alluring (this includes amputation, breast augmentation, facial reconstruction, and a need to shave her body on a daily basis), and as we hear of her wretched underground existence back on her home planet, where her life was tantamount to slavery, we gradually realise that Isserley is also a victim - one of capitalism, class, and gender equality.
As Isserley spends more time on Earth, she begins to see its beauty, realising that 'vodsels' have intelligence, that they may not be so different from her own race. Through this realisation, she begins to question her own identity and what it means to be 'human'. There's much more to the story than I've described here, but much of the joy in Under The Skin lies in how it slowly unfolds - not to mention, Michel Faber's beautiful, flawless prose.
Have you read Under The Skin? Did you see the film? What did you think?