Book Review: The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric
What's it About?
Born in 1784, Minguillo Fasan is a vile child. Everyone dislikes him, even his own parents. By the age of twelve he has developed a cruel, sadistic temperament which defies any attempt to curb it.
Then a sister is born. Beautiful, kind and gentle, Marcella is everything which Minguillo is not. She is loved by all, including the household servants who become deeply loyal to her cause, especially after her brother deliberately cripples her leg.
Minguillo finds his father's legal Will, and he learns the family's luxurious Venetian villa is to be inherited by Marcella instead of himself. Furious, he schemes to have her removed from obstructing his ambitions.
Meanwhile, their father spends most of his time on the other side of the world,in Arequipa, Peru. He is there to oversee the family's silver mines, which are the source of their wealth. But he also has another life there which his Venetian family know nothing of.
Minguillo also knows nothing of the blossoming romance between Marcella and a young doctor, Santo Aldobrandini.
And none of them yet know how the masochistic fanaticism of one Peruvian nun have such a huge impact on all their lives.
Author Michelle Lovric Talks about her Novel, Plus a Book Club Review
About the Author
Michelle Lovric was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived in Devon, England. She now divides her time between London and Venice. In 2014, she was appointed a Companion of the Guild of St George.
Lovric writes travel articles about Venice and has featured in several BBC radio documentaries about Venice. She also appeared in BBC TV’s Great Continental Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo.
She has taught creative and academic writing as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art and at Kings College Graduate School in England. She has worked with those caught up in the 2017 terror attack at London Bridge to record their experiences in prose and poetry. She adapted those accounts to create Testimony, a spoken word piece performed in Southwark Cathedral on the first anniversary of the attack.
She has written five novels, plus another four novels for young adults, with two more due for publication in 2019 and 2020. She is also engaged with editing, designing and producing literary anthologies including her own translations of Latin and Italian poetry. The Italian city of Venice features in several of her novels.
Lovric co-wrote memoir My Sister Milly with Gemma Dowler, the 13 year-old English schoolgirl who was murdered in 2002.
What's to Like?
This is a fascinating book, told through several characters. Each has a distinct voice and their own interpretation of unfolding events, their own loyalties and aims. Think of separate personal diaries cut and pasted to create a cohesive whole, each contributor having their own handwriting - or typeset font in this case. One character, Gianni delle Boccole, is a servant in the Fasan household and is only semi-literate; the reader is treated to his misuse of words and erratic spelling skills.
And what a twisting tale The Book of Human Skin truly is. There's nothing remotely obvious about the story's finale. It kept me turning pages, wanting to know what happened next.
The locations are described adequately without overdoing it, so the reader gets a strong impression of place without being swamped with detail. In the book's acknowledgements section, we're told the author was able to carry out research in Venice and Peru with the help of an Arts Council grant.
Although this is a violent story, the author skillfully avoids gratuitous detail, choosing instead to tease the reader. Leaving details to the imagination is often a more powerful tool than a blow-by-blow account anyway. It's like in horror films when you see the monster and immediately recognise that it's just some actor in makeup, or you watch a computer generated image which is limited by the technology available at the time it was made. Leave things to play through the human imagination, and anything can happen.
However, this is also a love story - a story of unfading loyalty and determination. It is not without its humorous moments, either.
What's Not to Like?
The start of this book requires a bit of effort on the reader's part, as the cast of characters are encountered for the first time. The author clearly knows this and even teases the reader about it through Minguillo.
It is easy to differentiate between the various characters, though, as each section is headed by their name and each has its own distinct font.
After this initial hurdle, I quickly became engaged by this fascinating story, which is one of the most entertaining novels I've read in a long while - and I read, on average, about 45 - 50 novels a year.
The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from:
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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray