A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is Michelle Lovric’s fourth novel for adults and like the first three, it focuses on semi-fantastical historical settings, with larger-than-life characters. She favours the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century and individuals and societies on the cusp of enormous change. The Book of Human Skin has a split setting – Venice and Peru – and a multi-spectrum narrative, which moves between five different points of view, with many other voices woven into them. The lack of one omniscient narrator keeps the reader on their toes as all the characters are capable of deceiving themselves, each other and ultimately, the reader.
It is worth saying at the outset that the book of human skin is what it suggests. The novel’s central male villain, the grotesque sociopathic Minguillo Fasan, enjoys a particularly horrible form of bibliomania, even going so far as to have a copy of Pride and Prejudice bound in a slice of skin from a woman who died of puerperal fever. Michelle Lovric’s note at the end of the novel tells us that there is no suggestion that this object existed, but that it wasn’t unknown for books to be bound in human leather. Minguillo would certainly have wanted one; he has a collector’s eye for a rare object and the irony of a romantic novel, by A Lady, wrapped in part of one would have appealed to his misogyny and his grim sense of humour. In his time, death in childbed befell many women, an unseemly fact quite at odds with the traditional happy ending.
However if he holds women in contempt, he’s not very keen on men either, a trait he shares with the equally appalling Sor Loreta. Like Minguillo, Loreta loathes everybody but is less honest about it. It is not the business of a nun to hate anyone and Loreta prides herself on how much more pious, righteous and worthy she is than those around her, even, (especially) her sister nuns. When we first meet her, she is a horrible little girl, enjoying the spectacle of a man’s death by torture. She goes from strength to strength in a career full of spite, jealousy and hysterical fanaticism that is at times hard to read about. Another character suggests that she has Sapphic tendencies. However, they couldn’t be more wrong. Her fixation on the very masculine figures of God and Jesus has an erotic dimension – in many respects, she recalls personalities such as St Teresa of Avila – and she refers to Jesus as her Heavenly Bridegroom. Her devotion to Him drives her to extremes that are narcissistic, stomach-churning and far out of keeping with the Christian humility expected of a nun.
There is a downside to these two horrific creations. While the narrative fizzes with horrible energy while they are on the page, it loses something when they are not. They are so appalling that the other main characters tend to be somewhat flat alongside them, as if the narrative doesn’t have the room for them to have their flaws as well. Marcella, Minguillo’s sister, is not the victim he hoped she was, but she is essentially good, possibly more so than she should be, given what she has to go through. It’s very hard to imagine anyone who had to grow up with Minguillo being as virtuous as Marcella apparently is. Having said that, Michelle Lovric tends to write the sort of novels where heroes and heroines are somewhat beside the point. If her villains take centre stage, it might be that she intends them to, backed up with a cast of interesting lesser characters – a Puccini-loving prioress, a pornographer-nun and a grumpy artist who was a central character in an earlier novel.
Both Venice and Cuzco in Peru emerge as strong settings, full of character, life and seething with as much corruption as Lovric’s readers would expect. In both places, status, wealth and power mean everything, even as the two societies are in the process of huge change. Venice was central to the Enlightenment and was also a flashpoint of the Napoleonic Wars. It was part of the Austrian Empire for the period covered by the novel and up till 1866, when it became part of the Kingdom of Italy. In the meantime, Peru was in the process of shaking off European rule, as its Spanish settlers became Spanish Peruvians. In both cases, hanging onto established norms and privileges was part of the process and also an impediment to change. The changes they were going through are reflected in the characters – that of Minguillo, full of aristocratic ego and entitlement, of Santo, part of the emerging professional classes and of the women, especially Marcella and Loreta, seeking to define themselves as individuals in their own right. Lovric reflects all that, with varying levels of success, but ultimately, offers the reader a memorable, gripping, if not always likeable novel.
As this is the first review I’ve done for a novel in Kindle format, it’s worth adding a few words about that as well. It’s quite a chunky book – nearly 500 pages in paperback, so from that point of view, the e-reader is ideal. It certainly helped me to get through it faster as I could read it wherever I liked. There was a technical issue, in that every time the narrator changed, so did the typeface size so I had to keep adjusting it to suit my reading vision. However, that wasn’t a huge issue for me as the Kindle makes it easy to do. Many paper books have a tiny typeface size and there is no way of adjusting it, something that can deter the keenest reader. Before I got my Kindle, I wondered how it would work with a very opulent book. Its low key presence and lack of pizzaz make it ideal for the brisk, comedic tone of M.C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, but some readers might think that it would somehow detract from more elaborate novels. However, the fact that the Kindle is so understated helps the reader to concentrate on the story. No matter how fat the book is, it doesn’t distract the reader’s attention with an uncomfortable, unwieldy bulk. On the basis of The Book of Human Skin and George R.R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, I’d say the Kindle works as well for fat books with huge character lists and masses of detail as for more minimalist offerings. As long as the writing works, the format works with it.
Bloomsbury. 2010. (London). ISBN: 140880588X. Kindle Edition.
Interesting review, but I don’t think I’ll be reading this one… I’m too old for unlikeable novels and characters!
Interesting re the book v Ebook question, Moira
As someone who finds words on a page of paper much easier to handle without undue fatigue and assimilate than images on a screen, have to say that the Kindle format just proves that images on a screen can, if appropriately presented be more than effective, compared with the paper version.
I’m reminded of the early days of word-processing. Most hapless typists were made to pore over flickering images on, at worst, single-line display devices, or, at best eight inch screens in garish hues of bright blue and green. Then those clever people at Sony came up with a dedicated word processor which had a full sized A4 screen displaying in soothing shades of grey and in WYSIWYG to boot – a truly marvellous and valuable innovation !
Similar I think has happened with the Kindle – and, in a wider sense, with the iPad. And, if you’ve ever tried Kindle on an iPad, you ‘ll be almost certain to covet one of these incredibly user-friendly and life-enhancing gadgets.
I thought the review of great interest and the book sounds an interesting read. However, I love traditional books and I love to read them slowly. Generally, The Kindle seems to be encouraging some poorer writing available at low cost (though there are obvious exceptions to the trend)- for me a battered and bulky second hand book with yellowed pages is the most satisfying reading format available. Many thanks, John.
such a passionate review! I love it, I am quite curious to read the novel as well
although..I do agree with John and would not encourage the use of Kindle format
just in order to preserve printed words, book shops and libraries and keep the magic of reading still alive
Popping in to say I don’t think there’s any valid conflict at all between paper books and ebooks, actually – we should instead, as keen readers, be ecstatic that reading choice has been expanded so successfully and powerfully to include all types, circumstances, places and choices. Indeed I don’t see why two such wonderful mediums (I love both paper & e-version books equally and for different reasons!) shouldn’t happily co-exist and support each other way into the future and beyond 🙂
Ooh and this definitely sounds a book for me – thanks, Sharon!
Thanks for all your comments. I’ve been an admirer of Michelle Lovric’s work for a few years now and like the way she tends to bring out the love or loathe it reaction – she’s anything but banal. I personally love what she does, even (especially?) her more horrible characters. However revolting they are, I’m interested in what happens to them, whether they escape justice or get their comeuppance.
I don’t think there’s a conflict between the formats either; I love both, and continue to use my local library as well as my Kindle and my TBR pile of paperbacks. Some books are too bulky for me to enjoy properly in a physical format. My cranky tendons make reading fat books literally painful and in that case, my e-reader is ideal. On the other hand, some downloads are poor value for money and in that case, I’ll go to the library.
Semi-fantastical, larger-than-life characters, multiple viewpoints… all get a big yes from me. But the a character actually covering books in human skin? That horrific nun? I can’t decide whether I want to scoop up this book or run screaming in the opposite direction.
Thanks for your e-reader thoughts too. I’ve long been considering one. I think it would make me read more and faster too. On short journeys I don’t bother wiggling a hefty book out of my bag as I’ll only have to wedge it back in five minutes later. This would make life so much easier!
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