Paperback: 894 pages Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Although it’s billed as “the first great 19th-century novel of the 21st century,” The Crimson Petal and the White is anything but Victorian. It’s the story of a well-read London prostitute named Sugar, who spends her free hours composing a violent, pornographic screed against men. Michel Faber’s dazzling second novel dares to go where George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and the works of Charles Dickens could not. We learn about the positions and orifices that Sugar and her clients favour, about her lingering skin condition, and about the suspect ingredients of her prophylactic douches. Still, Sugar believes she can make a better life for herself.
When she is taken up by a wealthy man, the perfumer William Rackham, her wings are clipped and she must balance financial security against the obvious servitude of her position. The physical risks and hardships of Sugar’s life (and the even harder “honest” life she would have led as a factory worker) contrast–yet not entirely–with the medical mistreatment of her benefactor’s wife, Agnes, and beautifully underscore Faber’s emphasis on class and sexual politics. In theme and treatment, this is a novel that Virginia Woolf might have written, had she been born 70 years later. The language, however, is Faber’s own–brisk and elastic–and, after an awkward opening, the plethora of detail he offers (costume, food, manners, cheap stage performances, the London streets) slides effortlessly into his forward-moving sentences.
Despite its 800-plus pages, The Crimson Petal and the White turns out to be a quick read, since it is truly impossible to put down.
* * *
From the back of the book:
Gripping from the first page, this immense novel is an intoxicating and deeply satisfying read. Faber’s most ambitious fictional creation yet, it is sure to affirm his position as one of the most talented and brilliant writers working in the UK. Sugar, an alluring, nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs Castaway, yearns for a better life. Her ascent through the strata of 1870’s London society offers us intimacy with a host of loveable, maddening and superbly realised characters. At the heart of this panoramic, multi-layered narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. The Crimson Petal and the White is a big, juicy, must-read of a novel that will delight, enthral, provoke and entertain young and old, male and female.
If I had but one word to review this whole novel then it would simply be: WOW.
Where to begin? For starters I can’t remember reading an opening quite as striking as Crimson Petal‘s is, and this high performing beginning is maintained throughout.
It’s like all the best-known Victorian-era literature that we love, but with all the dirty, depraved and downright scandalous bits left in. Yet it is all so beautifully written. Faber is an extraordinary writer: the meticulous details he includes really heighten the sense of ‘being in the story’ and are exquisite to read. It is an incredibly readable novel and extremely funny and bawdy. It is also (frequently) incredibly graphic at moments (especially as part of it is set in a brothel: ever wondered about pre-twentieth century birth control? Read this!). In fact, my eyes nearly popped out a couple of times towards the end of the first segment of the novel! But it’s all part of the narrative and provides us with a glimpse of what Victorian writers couldn’t publish in their own works. An especially delicious element of The Crimson Petal, for me, is that Faber imbues his narrative voice with a Thackeray-like narrative persona, which adds to the humorous and, well, often bitchy tone. When I put it down for the day, I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it. It really is true what the reviews said: at 835 pages long, it does feel too short!
I was utterly bereft when I finished it. The characters are so sharply drawn that I really miss them now they are out of my life.
Definitely 10/10… and I would give it more if I could!!
Reviewed by Amy Rushton
Additional Note: Michel Faber has written a ‘follow up’ collection of Crimson Petal inspired short stories, entitled The Apple (also published by Canongate; ISBN-10 1841959804, ISBN-13 978-1841959801)