Here’s a thing you might not know about Leeds Book Club.
We are blessed.
One of our members – whom I shall randomly nickname the Elf to protect her identity – has a super power – a gift some might rightly say.
After only a few minutes of conversation with you, she is able to magically present you with books that you’ll not only want to read; you’ll NEED to read.
These books will end up being the ones that you carry in your heart forever, stay up till 2am on a work night to finish without regret, ponder over for weeks after finishing them, recommend to friends and family or compulsively thrust upon strangers in the hope that their lives will similarly be as positively affected. The better that the Elf knows you – the more spot on and essential her choices.
Obviously, I can’t tell you who it is. Like all the greatest of gifts; it can be something of a burden. Quite how she manages to resist the urge to snatch the ‘wrong’ book out of someone hands is beyond me. Her self-control is to be admired.
So when I tell you that I was told by this Elf character to drop everything and start The Book Of Human Skin, I’m sure you can understand why I did just that – abandoned all other literary obligations and dove right in.
Midday, 13th May, 1784: An earthquake in Peru tears up the white streets of Arequipa. As the dust settles, a young girl with fanaticism already branded on her face arrives at the devastated convent of Santa Catalina. At the same moment, oceans away in Venice, the infant Minguillo Fasan tears his way out of his mother’s womb. The great Palazzo Espagnol, built on Peruvian silver and New World drugs, has an heir. Twelve years later, Venice is in Napoleon’s sights and Minguillo, who has already contrived to lose one sibling, is listening to the birth-cries of his new sister Marcella, a delicate, soft-skinned threat to his inheritance. Meanwhile, at Santa Catalina, the scarred young girl has become Sor Loreta, whose craving for sainthood is taking a decidedly sinister turn. Minguillo’s livid jealousy will condemn his sister to a series of fates as a cripple, a madwoman and a nun. But Marcella Fasan is not quite the soft target Minguillo imagines. Aided by a loyal servant, an irascible portrait-painter, a young doctor obsessed with skin, a warhorse of a Scottish merchant and a cigar-smoking pornographer nun, Marcella pits her sense of humour, her clever pencil and her fierce heart against Minguillo’s pitiless machinations. Her journey takes her from Napoleon’s shamed Venice to the last picaresque days of colonial Peru – where the fanatical Sor Loreta has plans of her own for the young girl from Venice.
The book opens and lets you know immediately that it could become uncomfortable reading. And then it rapidly delivers.
I don’t want to give anything away of the story. It’s too worth exploring yourself. So; I’ll just do a bit of a run down on my impressions of some of the main points. Once you’ve read the book; drop me a line – I’ll be thrilled to discuss it in detail.
Featuring some of the most deeply unpleasantly vicious characters ever to grace a page; the story does not shy away from describing some truly horrifying acts. In a few places, I rolled my eyes, disgusted at how OTT it was…then looked the particulars up and found out that these things used to actually happen.
The more foul/sexist/derogatory or inhumane the act; the more likely that it was in fact historically accurate – somewhat like the Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood – where every indignity suffered by the protagonist had actually occurred in our history.
I quite enjoyed reading the different narrative threads, though if I’m totally honest with you, it took some time to get into. The book opens with the voices of Sor Loreta and Minguillo dominant. Their twisted world vision provides interesting perspectives though I personally preferred it when those of kinder intent started to take over the narration. For one thing; without the constant glorification of self; the story began to flow a lot more smoothly. For another; you feel like you’re seeing a much more honest view of the world.
I think that Sor Loreta was my favourite character. Never before have I read a character that so deeply winded me up and thrilled me simultaneously. Her self-belief, arrogance and fanaticism, coupled with her distaste for all around her comes across clearly from the get go. Within seconds of starting her narrative; you forget all about relating to her and just enjoy trying to depict the world described without her deep-rooted hatred tingeing everything. Throughout the book every time I saw the font that indicated her particular thought patterns (really nice little structural touch there) I had this dirty little thrill of delight. It is endlessly fascinating to me that she was able to get away with so much for so long. It makes sense though – given the financial arrangement behind her cloistering – is that a word? I suppose if you pay for your insane daughter to be housed somewhere; you expect her to be let to her own devices as much as possible. You certainly don’t expect her to be up on charges or anything. Sor Loreta is, without doubt, an evil vicious cow. And I loved her for it.
I was somewhat less enamoured with Minguillo. Yes. He is equally arrogant, rude, nasty and cruel. However, the balance of power is all in his favour. The best thing about his perspective was contrasting it with other, more honest voices – his clothing for example – so important to him; a point of ridicule for everyone else – endlessly enjoyable. I think one of the things that I struggled with was his ability to get away with everything from such a young age. For me; his later villainy would have been more palatable and agreeable if it hadn’t been spelled out that he was a ‘wrong ‘un’ so early in the narrative. It was my only quibble but I felt a fairly major one.
The positive strands within the story are all interwoven, revolving around Marcella – the much maligned sister. She, her servant and her doctor break up the evil strands at the start of the novel; only really stepping up at the half way mark. Though each character has a unique voice and perspective; they are just a teeny tiny bit dull when viewed in comparison with the ‘baddies’ – as is often the case with these either or character types. Having said that; the way they articulate their world feels like a far better honest evaluation of the political and economic times. And they were clearly fascinating times.
The author clearly loves Venice and has researched the time frame backwards and forwards. I wasn’t three chapters in before I was just DYING to go for a visit. If she ain’t on the tourist board…she should be!!
A fantastic, disgusting and though provoking read. One that still manages to thrill and delight; even while you’re hiding behind the sofa or feel too disgusted to read on!
I haven’t read any of Michelle Lovric before, but I will definately be seeking out more of her work in the future.