The Book of Human Skin

Written by Michelle Lovric
Review by Sarah Bower

This is an ingenious, complicated tale, set on the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries and ranging from Lovric’s trademark Venice to the town of Arequipa in Peru. The central love story of the aristocratic Marcella Fasan, scion of a Venetian Golden Book family, and the humble Doctor Santo Aldobrandini, is told in multiple voices, including that of Minguillo, Marcella’s monstrous, Sadeian brother, Sor Loreta, a holy anorexic who is actually a diabolical bully, and a Fasan family retainer whose phonetic spelling reveals truths about his thoughts and feelings which you could call Freudian if it wasn’t an anachronism. The book’s title derives from the fact that Doctor Santo has a professional obsession with skin diseases and that Minguillo collects books bound in human skin (and what fun Lovric has with this – A Vindication of the Rights of Women bound in the skin of a dead prostitute, for example). It also involves the health of Napoleon and how this affects his conquests, and the portrait painter Cecilia Cornaro, first encountered in Lovric’s debut novel, Carnevale, and her skill in painting human skin.

There is a lengthy historical note at the end of this book, which seems to claim for it a seriousness which it does not have. It is a terrific romp, with more plot twists than a pig’s tail and some Grand Guignol set pieces of jaw-dropping monstrosity. Despite its length, you are almost compelled to read it in a single sitting, so skilled is Lovric at keeping the reader in suspense. Perfect beach reading and, in the unlikely event you don’t love it, heavy enough to hold a towel down.