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review: fiction

Michelle Lovric

For summer reading enthusiasts, this book should come with a warning: only to be read at the beach with a flagon of sunscreen to protect your tender human tissue because you will be mesmerized by this ornately wrought story set in late-18th-century Venice and Peru. As Minguillo Fasan, the villain of Michelle Lovric's fourth novel might say: Dear Reader, be completely assured you will fall in love with this gorgeously diabolical story of love, murder and obsession.

Minguillo, the eldest son of a wealthy Venetian silver merchant, is one of an ensemble of five characters who tell the story of his sister, Marcella Fasan, an angelic young woman who becomes the focal point for Minguillo's rage, jealousy and downright twisted sociopathic soul. Minguillo wins the honour of most abominable character since Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume, set in 18th-century France. Infuriated by his father's will, in which Minguillo's sister is named heir, his mission becomes to rob her of her inheritance and slowly torment her to death or insanity, whichever comes first. When she is, for all intents and purposes, sold to a convent in Peru, her persecution is overtaken by a demented nun. But Minguillo and the nun's nefarious campaigns are constantly thwarted by a cast of eclectic characters united through love for Marcella, and a desire to save her.

Lovric, whose third novel. The Remedy, was long-listed for the Orange Prize, has created a stunning book that combines masterful writing, meticulous historical research and an enviable ability to create characters so real that reading is akin to gliding through Venice in a gondola and observing up-close these lives and machinations. It's a deeply atmospheric novel, with Napoleon meandering through the pages like a vein, as the story flows through ancient convents, sailing vessels, lunatic asylums, mountains and grand Venetian mansions.

The author is a piece of exotica herself, dividing her time between a converted wharf in London and a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. When Lovric isn't writing her own fiction, she compiles anthologies and belongs to the Disinfected Mail Study Circle, an organization that studies antique letters contaminated with horrible diseases such as smallpox and the plague, and the efforts of port officials to disinfect them. The very inspiration for this story came out of an offer from a Venetian ephemera dealer who offered to sell the author a smoked and vinegared letter from 1789.

The Book of Human Skin is a lavish historical narrative with dramatic landscape and intricate plot that unfolds through multiple narrative voices, each offering a different perspective. Some are determined to save Marcella, and others are bent on her destruction. There are brother and sister, Minguillo and Marcella, the delusional and sinister nun Sor Loreta, the warm-hearted manservant Gianni delle Boccole, and the good doctor, Santo Aldobrandini, the quiet and impoverished lover of Marcella. In the hands of a lesser writer, the numerous points of view could be downright confusing, but Lovric presents a complete and complex portrait of each character.

Each character keeps a journal, and the five principal characters each have his or her own font. Initially a bit distracting, this device provides a visual texture to each distinct voice in this bizarre cast of characters, allowing them to inhabit their own skin, if you will, throughout the story. There is great sense of intimacy and confidence with each character, as they share their secrets and desires. Humour also courses through the story, at times perverse and at times warm and tender, when seen through the eyes of gentle Gianni, who risks his life time and again to stand between Marcella and her demented brother.

Simply put, this is a book about skin, skin as a metaphor for humanity, how humanity is contained, manifests and is perceived. As Doctor Santo records in his journal: "Perhaps this is why I have always loved the skin: because it is both the story and the storyteller." Marcella's skin radiates an unearthly purity while Lor Loreta ravages her skin in deluded acts of faux humility. Minguillo's skin is hideously scarred from acne and it is he who introduces the reader to anthropedermic bibliopegy, otherwise known as the practice of binding books in human skin, of which he is a collector. Some people will get under our skin, some will tear pieces off, some will preserve and protect our skin. Ultimately, the story shows how lives are painted upon our very skin, that we become a tapestry for all to see, perhaps to covet, perhaps to despair, or perhaps to worship.

The book begins and ends with Minguillo's warning to the reader, that they might be a bit uncomfortable. And let there be an added caveat: Lovric's dark tale of familial woe and colonial intrigue will imprint upon the Dear Reader's skin in the way only a classic can.

Christy Ann Conlin's next novel will feature a dilapidated mansion and a lunatic.