The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric

This is my first encounter with Michelle Lovric’s writing and it certainly whetted my appetite for more of her books.  Set in late 18th century Venice and Peru, the story is narrated by five main characters whose different “voices” are highlighted by the use of different fonts.  It’s a rollercoaster, romp of a novel in which the focus is on the fate of the young Venetian aristocrat, Marcella Fasan and her quest for survival faced with an extremely jealous, older brother Minguillo who will will leave no stone unturned in his efforts to rob Marcella of her rightful inheritance.

I do have a penchant for novels set in Italy and those with a wealth of quirky characters so I had an inkling I would love this novel.  Our five narrators come from varying backgrounds – Minguillo who is a would-be Marquis de Sade has many evil plots on the boil, aided and abetted by his over-indulgent parents who turn a blind eye to his downright malevolent streak.  He quickly advances from torturing small animals to turning his vindictive eye on his siblings.  His younger sister, Marcella, quickly learns to avoid his wrath and adopts an almost saintly, stoical approach, learning at an early age not to share her worries as her confidants would only incur the wrath of Minguillo as a consequence. Doctor Santo Albobrandini’s fate seems allied with that of Napoleon as he  tends to those injured in the course of Bonaparte’s march across Europe.  He loves Marcella from afar, unaware at first of Minguillo’s dastardly deeds.  Gianni, Minguillo’s semi-literate valet, plays the fool in order to gain the trust of his wary master and eventually plays a crucial role in rescuing Marcella, the damsel in distress.  Meanwhile, in Arequipa, Peru, Sor Loreta inches closer to her ambition to die for the love of Christ, irking the other nuns with her daily sado-masochistic practices.  Eventually we will see the connection between this religious fanatic and Marcella but first there is a story to be told!

I loved so much about this novel, its epic range, the vivid characters, the sights and sounds of both Venetian and convent life.  Yes, the characters are larger than life and a bit pantomime-like but that is part of this book’s charm.  Some scenes are reminiscent of Boccaccio’s Decameron, some of Dangerous Liaisons  – indeed, everytime Minguillo uttered his tag line “This is going to be a little uncomfortable”, I was reminded of the Vicomte de Valmont (played by John Malcovich) drawling “It’s beyond my control”.  The convent scenes high in the mountains of Peru are redolent of the film Black Narcissus where Sister Ruth becomes uncontrollably jealous of Deborah Kerr’s whiter than white character.  Indeed, think of all the best examples of melodrama, mix them with a pinch of  court intrigue, add in a soupcon of terror with books bound with human skin and voila, you have a show to beat all shows!

I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t mention one little fly in the ointment, for me anyway… I found Gianni, the semi-literate valet the most irritating charcter I’ve encountered in a long time and it was all due to his extremely peculiar turn of speech…

Until he had eleven year, if ye dint know him intimid, twere jist possible, with yer head on one side n yer fingers crosst, to think on Minguillo as a tearing-away kind ovva lad, with a morbid maginashon n a bad temper.

Some readers have found Gianni to be a most endearing, cute character – I thought he was an irritating cross between a chav and one of Chaucer’s pilgrims.  I don’t mind dialect but Gianni was on a par with nails screeching on a blackboard for me and everytime he “turned up” I found myself skim reading until he was out of sight.  Thankfully he doesn’t appear too often nor for too long – or  did I only imagine that as I psychologically blocked out most of his appearances…

Anyway, putting Gianni aside (I wish!), this is an extremely well-researched, entertaining story full of colour and character.  It has been likened to Perfume and yes, I would agree that the element of the grotesque feature in both but Michelle Lovric’s novel has a lighter, less headier fragrance.  Highly recommended for all who enjoy theatricality and a great story well told.

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7 Comments

  1. FleurFisher says:

    You make this sound wonderful. I knew from her earlier books that she does Venice so well, but I wondered about Peru. Clearly she’s pulled it , and with so much richness I can probably forgive the odd flaw, I’ll be pulling this one off the TBR very soon.

  2. admin says:

    I’m now on a mission to get the rest of her books, some of which I gather are children’s but that’s one of the genres I like (one of many!). Which ones have you read? Which would you recommend? I have The Floating Book TBR, have you read that one?

  3. FleurFisher says:

    I’ve read and I can highly recommend both Carnevale and The Remedy. I’ve only scanned the children’s books, but they definitely look to have enough substance to be very readable for adults too.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for that, I will now add those two to the wishlist and see if I can get a swap for them. :-)

  5. Violet says:

    You have to read The Remedy. It is fabulous. Was not so taken with Carnevale, though. This is tempting, but Gianni sounds highly irritating rather than quirky. I dont like dialect. Brings back bad memories of slogging through The Canterbury Tales. {shiver}

  6. admin says:

    Two votes for The Remedy then! Gianni speaks phonetically and maybe (not really..) I’m being a little harsh as my former life as a language teacher makes me cringe every time I see a spelling mistake.

  7. [...] who is equally at home conjuring up fabulous YA novels as well as acclaimed adult novels such as The Book of Human Skin.  Her latest children’s novel, The Fate in the Box, was published by Orion on 3rd May and [...]

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