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” comes 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.

Assessment of Lovric’s novels

Lovric’s novels are acclaimed, with reviewers enthusing over them with phrases like “swagger and style”, “beautifully told”, “excellent descriptive writing”, “nail-chewing” and “breath-taking”. Most recently, her novel The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters was published by Bloomsbury in June 2014 in the UK and in August 2014 in the USA.

Carnevale, by Michelle Lovric
Carnevale, by Michelle Lovric

She is also the author of my favourite novel about Venice and Casanova, Carnevale (2002), which is a delight and worth keeping for re-reading. Her novels have what could be termed “substance” – they are multi-layered and tackle difficult themes, while yet remaining accessible.

“ 1782. The thirteen-year-old daughter of a Venetian merchant is lured from her bath by a cat and finds herself in the arms of Casanova – the legendary lover of women. Twenty-five years later Cecilia is in Albania. She is now a portrait painter of great renown, her professional fame eclipsed only by her reputation as the last woman in Venice to have been loved by Casanova. Enter a young man from England, a troubled poet looking for adventure at any price – a man who begins his relationship with Cecilia with the announcement: ‘I rather look on love as a hostile transaction.’ He is George Gordon, Lord Byron, and with him Cecilia finds out about the darker side of passion.”) From Lovric’s website (rtrvd. 2015-03-07)

In the case of Carnevale, considering the subject, it could have been tacky, shallow or stereotypical. It’s none of that. It made me want to find out much more about the real Giacomo Girolamo Casanova.