The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric (2010)

Oh my goodness, I have been swept away by this glorious book.  It really is a dark gem: a captivating story, rich with historical details, and packed full of full of characters, incidents, ideas and images.

The story is brought to life by an extraordinary cast of characters so vividly painted. There is a cruel villain, a resourceful heroine, a penniless lover, and a mad woman. There are servants who are loyal but powerless; and there are friends who cannot help as much as they might like but who will do whatever they can.

At the centre of the story are the trials of Marcella Fasan, daughter of an aristocratic Venetian family; whose jealous,  brother, Minguillo,  will do anything – anything – in his power to strip her of her rightful inheritance.

7199784There are five voices, five different perspectives, all beautifully delineated; each one is both distinctive and engaging

Minguello Fasan, born in 1784 is ruthless, malevolent, sadistic, and downright amoral.  He aware of the dislike that his whole household, even his parents, feels for him; but he doesn’t doubt for a moment that it is for him, and for him alone, to inherit all his family’s wealth and social position.

He is repellent, but he is also a charming and compelling storyteller

Minguello’s collection of books bound in human skin is his consuming passion.

Marcella Fasan, his only surviving sister, is loved by everyone; but she learns at a very early age that it is wise to stay out of her brother’s way, and that it is wise to keep her worries to herself, and to show no attachment to any of the people around her so that they do not incur the wrath of Minguillo.

At first I found her almost too good, too stoical, but I quickly came to understand and to love Marcella. She was intelligent, she was a talented artist; and she had sufficient faith, courage and resourcefulness to rise above everything her brother did to her.

He did her physical harm, but her luminous skin wold always be beautiful.

Doctor Santo Aldobrandini was a poor orphan, but his good heart, his burning desire to help the afflicted, and his willingness to work hard to achieve his ambitions led him to an apprenticeship with a  surgeon. He found himself allied with Napoleon when he was called upon to treat those injured in the course of Bonaparte’s march across Europe; and in Venice he saw Marcella and he fell helplessly in love. At first he loved her from afar, knowing that his station in life was far below hers, but when he was made aware of her brother’s malevolent treatment of her he knew that he had to act.

I loved his story, and I came to love him.

Santo’s had a special medical interest: conditions of the skin.

Gianni delle Boccole, Minguillo’s semi-literate valet, presented himself as a fool to gain the trust of his master, but he was devoted to Marcella and he would do whatever he could to help her.

His  spelling and grammar was idiosyncratic, but I came to love it, but I came to love his warmth and wit. It was such a lovely contrast to the darker side if the story.

Gianni, Minguillo’s semi-literate valet, plays the fool in order to gain the trust of his wary master and eventually plays a crucial role in rescuing Marcella, the damsel in distress.

Meanwhile, in Peru,  Sor Loreta, dreamed of becoming a martyr, a saint, and the prioress of Santa Catalina. She was so sure that she was right, and that her way was right, that she dismissed any disagreement as the work of the devil. She believed that she was on the road to God; her mother superior, and everyone else around her, believed that she was deranged and delusional.

Her story was compelling; her psychology was fascinating.

Sor Loretta’s first step towards god was the mortification of the flesh.

A wonderfully wide-ranging plot, rich with details, taking in European and Latin American history, art and culture, religion and convent life, and a wonderful cast of supporting characters, each with their own story, twists and turns so cleverly until every one of those five narrators has told their story.

That story was theatrical; it was utterly believable – on its own terms – but it was just a little bit larger than life. The shifts between characters who stood for the light and characters who stood for the dark were very effective, and it was only when  the narrative stayed with one side or the other for too long that it lost its hold, just a little.

Michelle Lovric’s writing is rich and lovely, and she paints a wonderfully detailed picture of her characters and everything in their worlds. I can’t mention everything, but I must mention that I was delighted to meet Cecilia Cornaro, whose own story was told in ‘Carnevale’ again, and I was so pleased that she had a significant part to play in Marcella’s life.

There’s a wealth of history underpinning this story; it’s very cleverly done, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Michelle Lovric knew and loved that history.

At the centre of it all was a wonderful story, a story that I could hardly predict at all, and that story – and its five wonderful narrators held me from start to finish.

6 thoughts on “The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric (2010)

  1. Wonderful Review Jane! More than a year ago, you had introduced me to The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters and Michelle Lovric’s marvelous creativity and this book seems to be in keeping with her style of historical fiction, drama and wonderful characters! Just bought it after your review! Thank You once again!


  2. Lovely review, Jane. Oddly enough, I recently bought a copy of this novel for a friend who enjoys historical fiction. I’m hoping it will be a hit with her as well. 🙂


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