Did I not take you, as promised, on a long walk in the dark, and did you not choose me as your guide, by reading on? Is not the act of reading a congress as intimate as any carried on between lovers: with only these two parties, the Reader and the Writer, behind the closed doors of the binding, alone and raptly conjoined? You must own how deeply I burrowed my way into your affections with my picturesque atrocities, because you were first entertained by them, and then embraced them.
And so, Dear Reader, my crimes became yours.
Michelle Lovric’s The Book of Human Skin is narrated from five different first-person perspectives, ranging from the unctuous voice of Minguillo, quoted above, to the fastidious prose of the Doctor Santo. Alternating between such a varied cast of narrators creates an exciting and fast-paced plot, as the narrative voice tends to shift at pivotal moments. It also has the effect of creating stark contrasts between the narrators themselves; it allows the reader to see what each character, particularly the cruel Minguillo and the deceptive nun Sor Loreta, would perhaps prefer to hide.
Minguillo argues, in his address to the reader, that through experiencing Minguillo’s perspective we have somehow condoned his actions (‘my crimes became yours’). His attempts to beseech the reader and invoke sympathy reminded me of that most persuasive example of an unreliable narrator, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. Minguillo, however, lacks Humbert’s charisma, and while he is similarly disturbed by criminal vices, he makes only the weakest of attempts to convince the reader that he is ignorant of the horrific consequences of his actions. On the contrary, as the novel progresses he openly admits to the pleasure he takes in his villainy, such as his collection of books bound in human skin. Perhaps I’m not granting Minguillo’s prose enough credit; he may have been able to hoodwink his readers, like Humbert, if his perspective was not so frequently undermined by other, contradictory voices. In certain instances, such as Sor Loreta’s attempts to disguise the true nature of her relationship with Sor Sofia, it is possible to discern the truth behind the narrator’s lies, yet our two untrustworthy narrators will frequently neglect to mention certain unfavourable incidents, and so the interjections of more reliable voices serves to fill in the gaps in the reader’s knowledge.
The Book of Human Skin is a chaotic, dark and thoroughly Gothic novel. It engages with the almost every classic theme of the Gothic literary tradition, including corrupt religious institutions, struggles over wills and property, crumbling mansions, and anxieties over the degeneracy of the family line. As a modern novel, however, it is able to take a more direct approach to these dark themes than many works of the earlier Gothic tradition. Lovric openly portrays scenes of violence and evil without needing to displace these unsettling ideas onto supernatural characters or fantastical settings.
The novel also raises questions about the nature of evil, and asks how best to combat the problem. On the one hand it suggests that the villains are to be pitied, and fails to grant the reader the satisfaction of watching the perpetrators of the suffering endured through the novel suffer themselves. Yet it simultaneously advocates a less tolerant approach, leaving this question as a final puzzle for the reader:
Now your human villain stalks the world much the way the Small-Pox roams the blood and wrecks the body’s integument. He hurts. He disfigures. He kills. He’ll do it again, if not stopped. So why do we hesitate to ‘cure’ his evil? Do we try to understand the feelings of the Small-Pox scab? Do we perfume the stink of the Small-Pox pustule with excuses?