Review: The Crimson Petal and The White – Michel Faber

I apologise to anyone who has received multiple updates for this post in Google Reader and other feed readers. I have experienced technical problems following a software upgrade which I have now fixed.

I’ve been meaning to publish a of The Crimson Petal and The White (hereafter referred to as TCPATW!) for some time but have never got around to it, but seeing a photo of it in Random Jotting’s bookpile yesterday prompted me to pull it down from my shelves. I was immediately hooked once more in the story of Sugar, to my mind, one of the most memorable characters in literature. I also noticed that Canongate are republishing the book on 1 July 2010, and so perhaps this review is timely.

The mystery about this book is its unique place in Michel Faber’s output – he has written nothing either before or since that compares with or that has a similar style or theme to TCPATW, other than perhaps The Apple, a volume of “cutting room floor” pieces, which provide those who couldn’t bear having finished TCPATW with a few more snippets to remind them of what they were missing. I think I’ve read all his other books (e.g. the much lauded – but not by me – The Fire Gospel) in a quest to find the same level of reading satisfaction and while I appreciated them on their own terms, I did not feel that any one of them even approached the quality of TCPATW.

The Crimson Petal And The White by is a substantial book of over 800 pages and although at first I was a little daunted by its length, in no time at all I found myself completely absorbed. The book charts the rise of Sugar a London prostitute in Victorian England. Sugar was groomed into prostitution from being a young child, by her mother and although she has known no other life than one of abuse, she has visions of a life far beyond what she experienced.

Sugar’s counterpoint in this novel is William Rackham, the heir to a perfume business. Rackham becomes one of Sugar’s clients and in no time at all becomes so besotted with her that he persuades her (and pays appropriately) to devote herself entirely to him and he installs her in a smart apartment where she becomes in effect, his sole property.

The novel is of epic scale in that the story covers a number of years and the rise and fall of a wide cast of characters. The strength of this book is the characterisation achieved by Michael Faber and his descriptive powers. In The Crimson Petal And The White, Faber has created many strong and memorable personalities who by the end of the 800 pages have become so real that when the book finishes the reader feels a sense of loss that these people will not be encountered again. Few people in this novel would be classified as heroes or heroines, but all of them are multi-faceted people with strengths and weaknesses all too visible to the reader.

Faber’s knowledge of the times of which he writes is hugely impressive. I have been reading books set in London for many years now and I had no difficulty in realising the depth of research and study undertaken by Faber into sometimes quite obscure topics. Despite the Victorian setting the book is “modern”, particularly in its treatment of the key themes of human sexuality and the place of women in society. Whereas writers like Dickens and Dostoevsky dealt with some of Faber’s themes, because of the restrictions of the times they were unable to deal frankly with many of the issues which Faber confronts full-on.

Sugar herself is a remarkable character. Faber allows her to develop and grow while also retaining her essential character which enables her to survive appalling treatment at the hands of men. Afflicted by the skin disease psoriasis and suffering also from the after-effects of the life of the prostitute, Sugar rises to become one of fiction’s strongest women and her enigmatic end leaves the reader anxious to know what happened after the book finishes (some of these questions being answered in the sequel mentioned above, The Apple).

I left this book with a huge sense of relief that I was not born into Victorian times with its rigid social rules and manners. One of the themes of Faber draws out in his book is the way in which Victorian people related to each other in socially-prescribed ways which prevented them from relating to one another as full human beings, never able to deal with issues which may have allowed them to lead full lives.

I would commend Michael Faber for the quality of his writing. He has a unique style which draws the reader in to his novel and even when not much appears to be happening in the plot (and with over 900 pages this is inevitable from time to time), the reader can take delight in his elegant prose, his mastery of dialogue and his insight into the human situation. It would be impossible to here the many themes covered in this novel. Faber’s insights into Victorian London are as interesting as the story is itself compelling. In mentioning Dickens and Dostoevsky above I am almost embarrassed to say that I do feel that Faber has achieved a work of equal stature to those great writers of the past. I am gratified to read many other reviews of this book which confirmed my opinion.

Title: The Crimson Petal and The White
Author: Michel Faber
Publication: Canongate (1 July 2010), Hardback, 984 pages
ISBN: 978-1847678935

Newspaper review:

Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian – “a supremely literary novel”

Book blogger review:

Reading Matters – “an astounding literary accomplishment”

31 comments to Review: The Crimson Petal and The White – Michel Faber

  • Great review – I had a feeling it was not a new book as the title was familiar to me, but I see it is a republication. I have started it but other things have got in the way for the moment, but having read your review and the links to the others, then I shall get back to it as soon as possible

  • This is one of my favorited reads – so glad to see you enjoyed it! I thought Faber did a brilliant job with the tone and setting of the novel and his character development was just amazing! You couldn’t help but become easily engaged with this novel – his writing was just that good! And I do agree with you that reading this book made me happy I wasn’t born into that time period, too! Great post, Tom!

  • I’ve heard of this book before, but I’ve never felt compelled to pick it up… until reading your thoughts on it! Normally I shy away from looooong books, but you make this one sound engrossing and well-paced, and the material certainly sounds interesting. I’ll have to keep it in mind!

  • I agree, this is a great novel; I was mesmerized by it from the very first paragraph. I also liked The Fire Gospel, because it’s marvellously entertaining, and I have just started Under the Skin, which seems promising so far. I hope I will like it as much as TCPATW, but I have not seen it as enthousiastically received as Sugar’s story, so maybe it’s just quite good instead of great. I’ll settle for that 😉

  • Tom

    The mystery is why M Faber has not followed up TCPATW with anything like it. Sarah Waters writes similar novels but manages to produce many of them. I regret I did not like the Fire Gospel very much, but agree that it is entertaining.

  • Tom

    Nadia- thanks for visiting. Yes, its a really fine book – reminiscent in some ways of Sarah Waters – Fingersmith for example. I agree that the Victorian era was not a great time to be born – unless you were a wealthy male!

  • Tom

    Elaine – get back to it quick – its worth the effort!

  • I loved the book when I read however many years ago and its characters are still memorable, notably Bodley and Ashwell and their book, The Efficacy of Prayer. I think it may have been the first novel I’d read, as I was making the transition to literary fiction from crime and horror, that introduced postmodernism to me. The idea of a book being like a whore, merely a cheap entertainment, amazed me and it was truly a shame that Faber could never let it be and wrote the disappointing trimmings that were The Apple. And, rightly so, as you say, it’s disappointing that he hasn’t yet published anything of TCPATW’s brilliance since. I say ‘yet’ because the few short stories and novellas published since are, I believe, stopping off points on a longer journey. I think I remember an interview where he said TCPATW took as much as twenty years to write, all in. So don’t hold your breath on a new masterpiece.

  • I thought this was a wonderful novel, a real page-turner with a tremendous sense of time, place, and character. I was not, however, fond of the ending and thought it was so anti-climactic that I barely finished the novel. It was a huge bummer.

  • Tom

    Sarah – I can sort of understand what you mean. For me it didn’t detract from it. FAbers’s book The Apple provides a little more of “what happened next” but for me it was a let down.

  • Tom

    Stewart – thanks for the information – I’m not surprised that it too 20 years of Faber’s life to gestate and write the book. I have read all his other works I think and they are good on their own terms but not generally all that remarkable. I didn’t know you came from a crime and horror reading background – what a transition you made to some of your current reads – and your excellent forum

  • I know what you are saying: I’ve still to read Under The Skin and Some Rain Must Fall, but I’ve read everything else. They’re good, for what they are, but none could even begin to lace the boots of this one novel.

    As for crime and horror, yes. I used to have shelves of King, Rice, Herbert, Barker, and so on, but eventually they became ridiculous and my willing suspension of disbelief became less, well, willing. I think it was only two years ago that I packed up three boxes full and gave them all to a charity shop.

  • Tom

    Well, they’re all actually rather good at what they do. Who could fault King for being an excellent story teller. Stephen Baxter also – I’m reading Flood at the moment – I like a bit of light relief sometimes.

  • Wonderful review! I love reading books set in Victorian times because I enjoy reading their social setup and the cultural mores during the time… This sounds apt…

  • “Who could fault King for being an excellent story teller.”

    I have.

  • A brilliant, brilliant book. I read this a year or so ago and was completely bowled over by it. I liked it at the time but after I had finished it I kept thinking about it and its become a firm favourite. I can understand why people wanted more, myself though I have The Apple I have never actually gotten around to reading it.

  • Will you be writing up Flood Tom?

  • Thanks for linking to my review, Tom.

    I have very fond memories of reading this book (by a pool at swanky hotel in Madeira) a few summers’ ago. I read The Apple, which was enjoyable but not particularly special.

    I’ve got a few of his earlier novels in my reading queue; I must get around to reading them one day!

  • Lovely review Tom. I loved this book too when I read it around the time it came out. It was quite a surprise really. I tend to be daunted by long books but I’m very glad I wasn’t put off by this one because as you say he manages to walk that fine line between Victorian times and modern sensibilities/concerns really well. I haven’t read anything else of his though I think (too lazy to check) that I have one in my tbr (somewhere!).

  • TCPATW was great, and I’m also a big fan of his novellas the names of which Anna has mentioned above.

  • It is a long time since I read this book, Tom – so I perhaps my response to your excellent and thoughtful review should be duly handicapped! I remember tho’ that Michel Faber’s huge novel is beautifully-written; clearly (sometimes a little too obviously) thoroughly-researched, and suffused with an academic literary sensibility that struck me sometimes as a tad too post-modern by half in style and structure (the readers writing, the writers, etc., the Writer himself adressing the real reader in sub-George Eliot style; the heavy nods + winks to shockhorror staples of Victorian fiction such as the mad wife, the intelligent woman endlessly frustrated or endlessly scheming, the failed poet, the vulgarity of commerce, blahblahblah, snore). I disliked the characters, and found all the detail about sexual proclivities and practices a bit too, er, obtrusive at times to the extent that it appeared an attempt to épater les bourgeois (this bourgeoise remained resolutely non-épatée) & therefore subject to the law of diminishing returns. The whole book took itself far too seriously (even Krafft-Ebing contains the odd gag, for heaven’s sake! My personal fave is the one about women above a certain social stratum being constitutionally incapable of enjoying sex, as if status had anything to do with it). But perhaps I was reading the book improperly and in inappropriate circs (best beloved dying; redundancy; enforced sale of home, etc.). Dunno. But what I do know is (a) I wouldn’t re-read it, and (b) a consultant dermatologist I knew thought Faber’d got psoriasis right … almost.

  • Tom

    Minnie – you should review more books – you have obviously seen things which I missed out. Interesting that your dermatologist friend was able to confirm that Faber had got the psoriasis about right.

  • Tom

    Tony – thanks for visiting – as you see, I wasn’t so keen on his other works!

  • Tom

    Whispering – well, long books can be great if you enjoy them. Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is the longest I ever read but held my interst throughout.

  • Tom

    Kimbofo – well, a swanky hotel sounds the ideal place to tackly a long and involving novel like this one. I agree with you about The Apple

  • Tom

    Max – well, I’ve only borrowed Flood from the library and will see how I get on with it. It wouldn’t be my first attempt at something I read about in the paper only to find it doesn’t live up to expectations and I have a feeling that’s going to be the case here. I looked up Amazon reviews the other day and they weren’t too good

  • Tom

    Simon – thank for visiting. I seem to have stumbled on a book which is universally liked judging by the comments.

  • Tom

    Steware – OK, point taken. I was thinking really of his imagination rather than his execustion

  • Oh

    A delight to find your blog, especially your blog’s “mission” – to read and review and not criticize others opinions. And then there is your review of The Crimson Petal and the White. It’s been on my shelf for several years. Because you tout the writing, I’m in, I’m there, I’m interested. It is now on the summer reading stack, along with Gone With the Wind (never finished) and Gravity’s Rainbow.

  • Sarah

    I am hpartway through this, having stumbled upon it at a second hand book stall! I am really enjoying it and find his style most unusual, but rather compelling. I see it is being made into a BBC2 programme later this year, and wonder how it will fare.

  • Tom

    Sarah – Oh great – a BBC programme. That’s something to watch out for isn’t it. Thanks for letting me know

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