“ Author: Michelle Lovric / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 20 June 2011 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC / Title: The Book of Human Skin / ISBN 13: 9781408809648 / ISBN 10: 1408809648 „
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I ordered this book whilst browsing Amazon one day as the blurb said it featured Venice, Italy and Arequipa, Peru. I have visited both these cities in the last few years, and found them both lovely so was keen to see how they would be linked in a book. Although I must admit to finding the title slightly off-putting, and I was concerned if I would really like it.
The book is character led and is narrated by five different characters, each with their own voice, and, in my particular oversized paperback copy, with slightly different text. Each new 'speaker' has their name as a header, and the sections are mostly short - very few extend over more than 3 pages. There is no danger of muddling up the characters, they are very distinctive.
Starting in the last eighteenth century in Venice and Peru, the story quickly fast tracks to the early nineteenth century where most of the events take place.
Minguillo Fasan - eldest son of the Comte Fasan, who resides in the Palazzo Espagnol in Venice. Minguillo is manipulative, spiteful, power-hungry and a bully. These are his better qualities, and he would probably thank you for the compliment if you were to call him these things. His main hobbies include collecting books bound in human skin (hence the title) and getting rid of his sisters, who are favoured by their father and a threat to his inheritance. Minguillo speaks eloquently and comes across as well-read and intelligent, even if he is slightly presumptive as to assume he has the reader onside.
Marcella Fasan - younger sister of Minguillo, she has been bullied by him from an early age, her parents unable, or unwilling, to protect her. She accepted this as someone who knew no different and seemed to have an inner strength that got her through. She is artistic and kind, and her 'voice' in the pages shows this, although is some respects I thought she was a little bit too good to be true and was probably the weakest character.
Gianni delle Boccole - valet to Comte Fasan and later to his son. Gianni is semi-literate and thus his writing is strewn with spelling and grammatical errors, which could annoy some readers, for example words are often spelt phonetically. I certainly struggled with his prose at times, and when you 'hear' his voice in your head, he doesn't sound particularly Venetian, more a Yorkshireman! It is a style I had to get used to. Gianni sees himself as a kind of unofficial guardian to Marcella, keeping an eye out for her, and attempting to thwart Minguillo's attempts to injure her.
Doctor Santo Aldobrandini - an impoverished Venetian doctor, he was called to the Palazzo Espagnol to attend to an 'accidental' death and spies Marcella and falls in love. He is not always in Venice, he travels around serving Napoleon and learning his craft to further be of assistance to Marcella, but he keeps abreast of activities in Venice courtesy of Gianni.
Sor Loreta - a Peruvian nun at Santa Catalina Convent in Arequipa, who claims to have an invisible stigmata, and is convinced she is destined for sainthood. She was, at different times, my favourite and my least favourite character. Her borderline insanity made her intriguing and unpredictable, but at the same time her fanaticism made me uncomfortable.
Amongst these main character were a supporting cast including an outspoken artist, some lively nuns, inmates in a lunatic asylum and a spirited slave girl.
I have to say that the book took me a while to get into. It took some time for Santo and Sor Loreta's strands to merge with that of the residents of Palazzo Espagnol and I couldn't see where the book was going. I was starting to wonder if the book was going to be a meandering tale rather than one with an actual plot. Once the book got into its stride I enjoyed into it more and started to look forward to reading it again and seeing what will happen to each of the characters. Lovric's characterisation is top notch, she makes them come to life, and gives them depth, even Marcella who I thought to be slightly weaker than the rest. Saying that, the terminal victim that is Marcella, was weakened anyway, so this may have been intentional. All five are easily distinguishable and unique from each other and in this respect I was very impressed. The book seemed well researched in its descriptions of both the locations and the historical periods. Overall I would recommend this book if you think the story and characters appeal, but I am loathe to enthuse too much, as there are some weak points that could impact the enjoyment for some readers, such as Gianni's section and the fact that the book to a while to get going.
I was not familiar with the author before, but it appears she has written a few novels already, mainly set in Venice and I am sufficiently impressed to try her other novels should the situation present itself, but I am unlikely to go out of my way for them.
My over sized paperback has approx 500 pages, the last 30 or so are made up of the author's comments regarding that period of history and the locations.
Also posted on Amazon.