Novel of the week

Under the Skin

Michel Faber <em>Canongate, 296pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0862419271

Michel Faber's first novel opens with a mysterious woman preying on hitchhikers from her battered Toyota Corolla in the Scottish Highlands. She is looking for "a hunk on legs", or so she says, a search - we swiftly learn - that she undertakes with alarming frequency, sometimes several times a day. After picking up her young men, she asks them a series of questions to establish how much they will be missed from the world at large, while at the same time flaunting her Playboy-style cleavage.

At first, you wonder if you are reading a post- feminist Celtic road novel, but soon you overhear the woman, Isserley, "decoding" words rather than understanding them; and it isn't long before we understand that, as the subject of a bizarre experiment, she has been switched from a perfectly mundane, if downtrodden, life on the "estates" into a "vodsel", trapped in a physical shell she abhors.

So, everything in Under the Skin is not as it seems; even the most preternatural events are given a domestic familiarity by Faber's simple style. He enjoys deceiving his readers, but he also enjoys hinting at the truth, often with the ambiguous use of a single word - "decoding", for instance. And he couches the most disturbing revelations in the same disarmingly blank tone as the rest of the book. Like Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (adapted for cinema as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner), Faber suggests that the most frightening threat to the civilised world would be an invisible one; it would be an alien disguised as your next-door neighbour.

Under the Skin is on the cusp of science fiction, but Faber never allows himself to be caged in genre, and he successfully subverts thriller conventions even as you think he is succumbing to them. As we draw closer to Isserley and learn more about her life, the mystery of the novel deepens. We are told that she could "glimpse her feelings, but only out of the corner of her eye, like distant headlights reflected in a side mirror". As a character, though, she remains frustratingly underdeveloped. We are encouraged to sympathise with her loneliness, as she patrols the roads of the Highlands, and with her passion for the beauty of the natural world. But too much about her remains resolutely unexplained, not least her uneasy relationship with her boss's son. (At times, she can seem more like an anxious teenager than a woman embarked on a complicated mission of self-invention.) And because the novel is narrated from her point of view - and we only briefly leave her when we encounter the men she picks up - there is no relief from the overall strangeness.

Dutch-born, brought up in Melbourne and now living in the Scottish Highlands, Faber has an extraordinary gift for making an alien world feel familiar, and vice versa. Even so, this accomplished, multi-layered novel suffers from a skilfully crafted metallic tone that sounds, just occasionally, like an empty vessel.