Review of historical fiction Unlikeable Protagonists

Ooh, what a horrible man – The Book of Human Skin, by Michelle Lovric

The Book of Human Skin, by Michelle Lovric
The Book of Human Skin, by Michelle Lovric (Penguin Canada; 1st ed., June 8, 2010)

The title is a fair indication of what lurks inside the covers of this book. It has been compared to Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Süskind’s Perfume – but I have never read anything quite like it.

There are five narrators; an insane 18th century Venetian count, “Minguillo Fasan”; his sister, “Marcella”, whom he wants to kill; Marcella’s devoted manservant; her lover, a doctor of skin diseases; and a fanatical nun in a Peruvian convent. It is about quack medicine, the plight of women, and enduring love. It is multi-faceted, dense with historical detail, and absolutely gripping all the way.

It will simultaneously creep you out and mesmerize you, and you will find, as Count Minguillo says just before he does something ghastly, that “this is going to be a little uncomfortable”!

The characters each have their own voices, with their own typical speaking and writing styles, and mis-spellings and grammar mistakes, like Marcella’s manservant who is semi-literate, “Gianni delle Boccole”. It takes some getting used to, but builds an amazing atmosphere and the reader feels fully immersed.

“Swear I got more sweet memmaries from those times than ye got hairs. In retrospecked, twere as if we was makin o the Palazzo Espagnol a perfeck bower, a vegetable paradise on earth, for Marcella Fasan to be borned into. We was more than sorry each time my Master Fernando had to sail agin for Peru. Twas vilent times in that far place. There was stories coming out o there to make yer hairs turn white n curl up yer toes.” (Gianni delle Boccole)

Eventually the “vilent times” come to Venice as well as Peru. In fact the violence and toe-curling events pretty much follow Minguillo Fasan wherever he goes, like the poisoned trail a Colombian Golden Poison Dart Frog leaves behind it.

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