Warning: Major spoilers ahead!
Much like the title of the book, Under the Skin is not what it looks like on the surface.
When the story opens, we’re introduced to the book’s protagonist Isserley, who spends her time in the Scottish Highlands picking up brawny (himbo) hitchhikers along the A9. At first, we’re led to believe that her interest in these men is for sexual purposes – but we quickly learn that there is something more sinister behind her actions when she flips a toggle to inject the man, who she calls a ‘vodsel’, with a drug that knocks him out.
Now, if you know any Dutch, you’ll know that this is a play on the word ‘voedsel’, meaning ‘food’. And that’s exactly what these men are to her—a foreign delicacy Isserley and her coworkers keep locked up under the farm where they reside. There, these men are fattened up, butchered and sent back to their homeland.
Because yes, Isserley and her coworkers are also aliens. We learn that Isserley has chosen to come to Earth after being condemned to live in the slums on her home planet, a place where clean air and water is scarce.
It’s an interesting read, because of all the sci-fi books I’ve read, I’ve only heard of people leaving Earth to look for a better world. Prior to reading this, I don’t think I could’ve imagined Earth being depicted in this genre as a better alternative for somewhere else.
Under the Skin is a book that touches on a plethora of important social issues including sexism, classism, and more predominantly, the environment, animal cruelty, and factory farming.
The parallels drawn between what happens on Isserley’s farm and what happens in over 1000 farms across the country reveal the horrific conditions animals have to live in: kept in small, unsanitary cages, and slowly rotting away in their own filth.
When the tables are flipped on us, we begin to wonder why it’s considered normal to keep animals in such conditions, but inhumane and horrific when the same thing is happening to young men?
Though some of the more gory descriptions make for an uncomfortable read at times, for the most part, this didn’t come off as a book that tries to force a vegetarian agenda onto its readers—in fact, the character of Amlis Vess, who plays a role similar to that of an animal rights activist, is seen as a childish idealist and mocked because his ideals are only attainable to those from a more privileged background, like himself.
To me, the book poses the question of what separates humans (spoiler: in this book, ‘humans’ refer not to us, but to the aliens) from animals, and explores the idea that we only feel morally responsible for our actions towards those we feel are similar to us.
Isserley’s dissociation from vodsels allows her to kill them without remorse, yet she find the idea of killing sheep—which are closer to her natural form—ruthless. Is our distance from farm animals what gives us the ability to ignore the horrible conditions they are kept in?
I’m not entirely sure, but this atmospheric, haunting novel has definitely given me a lot to think about.
So will Under the Skin make you vegetarian? It hasn’t for me, but it might just make you reconsider the types of places you’re getting your meat from.
If you liked this post then read BLOT’s reviw of T.C. Boyle’s Blue Skies or Think piece: Why do no books set in the future show good depictions of the planet? next.
Shani is a journalism student obsessed with books, dance, and all things true crime. When she’s not stuck in the middle of a good book, she’s listening to podcasts or watching hour-long video essays on YouTube.
Favourite genre: Crime.