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by Michelle Lovric
Penguin Canada, July 2010
512 pages
$26.00 CAD
ISBN: 0143177265

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In May, 1784, Arequipa, the White City of Peru, was extensively damaged in a major earthquake. At almost that precise moment, Sor Loreta arrives at the Santa Catalina convent, delighted that at last she is to find a holy sanctuary worthy of her exalted spirituality. She will be disappointed.

Also at that same moment, a child is clawing his way into the world in Venice, entering life with his head turned the wrong way round, beginning as he means to go on. This is Minguillo Fasan, only son of a noble Venetian family, ugly, grotesquely proud, murderous, and perverse. He could be a second cousin to the Marquis de Sade, with terrible acne and an appalling dress sense. Like Sor Loreto, whose fate will ultimately intersect with his own, he is a monster of egoism and the two of them express a fundamental human evil at work in the world. It is impossible to generate any sympathy for either of them, though we do come to understand what drives them both.

Some sixteen years later, another child is born in Venice, Marcella Fasan, little sister to Minguillo and replacement for the first daughter in the family, Riva, who died, to Minguillo's delight, at six, of a mysterious ailment. Immediately she becomes the object of his implacable hatred and is largely due only to the devoted care of two servants, Gianni and Anna, that she does not go the way of her elder sister.

Sor Loreto, Minguillo, Marcella, Gianni, and one more character on the side of the angels, Doctor Santo Aldobrandini, whose passion is skin, each keeps a journal in an individual type face, and it is exclusively through these that the narrative progresses. Gianni is but semi-literate and his contributions appear in a larger font-size. He writes more or less phonetically, which produces a witty, if unconscious, kind of word-play that is frequently very funny. Sor Loreto's contributions are unrelievedly grim, on the other hand, as she is based on the life stories of several 17th century Spanish women who were given to extraordinary acts of self-mutilation as proof of their holiness. In the 17th century these got them canonized; alas for poor Sor Loreto, times have changed and she is merely derided for her (literal) pains.

It is Marcella's fate that is the issue, but she is no passive victim waiting for relief. She has her own strategies for survival, her ironic comprehension of the forces arrayed against her, and her allies. She is at once both clever and good, an unbeatable combination.

THE BOOK OF HUMAN SKIN is gripping, absorbing, distressing, amusing, and impossible to put down. The reader is warned at the outset that "This is going to be a little uncomfortable," and sometimes it is. The world it evokes seems at times the work of a fevered imagination, but it is all based on sound research. (Do not skip the Historical Notes at the end; you may be amazed at what turns out, after all, to be simple fact.) Though it reminded me at times of TRISTRAM SHANDY, the Marquis de Sade, and THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO, it is thoroughly contemporary and full of surprises, not the least of which are the reality that lies behind those staples of Gothic fiction, the nunnery and the madhouse. In short, it is not quite like anything I've read before and how rare is that!

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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