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
Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian – “a supremely literary novel”
Book blogger review:
Reading Matters – “an astounding literary accomplishment”