Midday, 13th May, 1784: An earthquake in Peru tears up the white streets of Arequipa. As the dust settles, a young girl with fanaticism already branded on her face arrives at the devastated convent of Santa Catalina. At the same moment, oceans away in Venice, the infant Minguillo Fasan tears his way out of his mother's womb. The great Palazzo Espagnol, built on Peruvian silver and New World drugs, has an heir. Twelve years later, Venice is in Napoleon's sights and Minguillo, who has already contrived to lose one sibling, is listening to the birth-cries of his new sister Marcella, a delicate, soft-skinned threat to his inheritance. Meanwhile, at Santa Catalina, the scarred young girl has become Sor Loreta, whose craving for sainthood is taking a decidedly sinister turn. Minguillo's livid jealousy will condemn his sister to a series of fates as a cripple, a madwoman and a nun. But Marcella Fasan is not quite the soft target Minguillo imagines.
Aided by a loyal servant, an irascible portrait-painter, a young doctor obsessed with skin, a warhorse of a Scottish merchant and a cigar-smoking pornographer nun, Marcella pits her sense of humour, her clever pencil and her fierce heart against Minguillo's pitiless machinations. Her journey takes her from Napoleon's shamed Venice to the last picaresque days of colonial Peru - where the fanatical Sor Loreta has plans of her own for the young girl from Venice. Bewitching, daring, darkly humorous and alive with historical detail, "The Book of Human Skin" is a breathtaking story of unmitigated villainy, Holy Anorexia, quack medicine, murder, love and a very unusual form of bibliomania.