944 pages, Mariner Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
A word of warning: Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White is not a novel to approach half-heartedly. If you make the choice to read it, you are committing yourself to a substantial task. At 835 pages of very small type, Faber's novel is not one the average reader will waltz through in a matter of days. Even the keenest reader is likely to have to dedicate several weeks to ploughing through this weighty tome.
If the sheer size of the book doesn't put you off, the novel's intrusive narrative voice might well do the job. Being a novel set in the nineteenth century, Faber chose to follow the tradition of Dickens and his contemporaries by telling the story through an omniscient, somewhat smug narrator. Many readers will find the constant interruption in the flow of the story almost too much to bear. I found myself reminded of Laurence Sterne or Henry Fielding's interminable rambling digressions rather more than the Victorian authors Faber was clearly hoping to imitate. I confess that I almost gave up on the book after the first few chapters and only persevered after a friend assured me that I'd get used to it.
I did get used to it. I read the whole thing and I want more. I want to take all my clothes off and rub myself down with this novel. I want to cook it up and shoot it into my veins. I want to do things to this book that words don't yet exist for.
To call The Crimson Petal and the White a great novel is an understatement. It is a truly magnificent book. As intelligent as any work of literary fiction, Faber's book doesn't once patronise the reader but neither does he seek to alienate his audience. A huge cast of superbly realised characters that are both hilarious and pitiable whilst, most importantly, remaining believable. A storyline that manages to be suitably melodramatic without coming across as crass or exploitative. A vibrant and incredibly well-researched setting that readers can lose themselves in. Everything about this book screams quality. I cannot think of the last time I felt so transported by a novel. It is as though I've been eating cinema hot-dogs my whole life and have just been presented with a sumptuous banquet.
The novel follows a nineteen year-old prostitute named Sugar and her relationship with William Rackham, the reluctant heir to a successful perfumery. Sugar dreams of a better life and sees William as a means to escape her current situation. Though born into money, William's own personal life is by no means simple. His pampered wife is undeniably mad and his brother is irritatingly godly. As with many Victorian fathers, he is barely familiar with his own daughter. Frustrated by his father's expectations and the stultifying demands of high society, William's desires can only be vented through his relationship with Sugar. When he purchases Sugar for his personal use and installs her in her own apartment, she is able to begin her climb out of prostitution towards a more civilised lifestyle. However, Sugar realises that her situation is precarious and is not guaranteed to be permanent and so hatches a plan to make herself indispensable to William.
From one point of view, the novel is about how people use one another to get what they want. Sugar's mother pimps out her own daughter as a means to make money. William uses Sugar first as an object of desire and then as a means to help get to grips with running Rackham Perfumery. Sugar massages his ego and gives him the affection and support that his emotionally unstable wife is incapable of providing him with. Damaged by her experiences of the countless men who used her services as a prostitute, Sugar uses William as a means of escaping her past.
From another point of view, the book is about how people, often unwittingly, manage to thwart their chance of true happiness. William's pious brother Henry is so absorbed with being seen as a good and holy man that he fails to see that his widower friend Emmeline Fox is in love with him. Sugar and William's relationship has the potential to develop into something that transcends its sordid roots but never does. William is nauseatingly self-centred and manages to remain oblivious to the thoughts and feelings of anyone. Sugar is so scarred by her past and desperate to protect her future that she neglects to enjoy the present.
Whilst Faber allows the relationship between William and Sugar to simmer and readers might begin to hope that some good might come of it, he wisely avoids a happy ending. This isn't to say that the book's climax is depressing. Faber might not provide his readers with what they expect but this makes final chapters of the book even more gripping.
Faber's evocation of Victorian London is wonderfully well-written. From the well-to-do neighbourhoods of Rackham and his friends to the seedy, filth-strewn alleyways frequented by Sugar's people, the locations in Faber's metropolis feel as authentic as those in a novel by Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins. However, Faber is able to give us a far more seedy portrayal of London life. Coarse language, brutal violence and graphic sex give us a glimpse of the vice-ridden streets of London that the Victorian authors, bound by the conventions of their time, were unable to describe. Yes, there's a hell of a lot of shagging in this book and Faber doesn't hide behind pleasant euphemisms to describe what's going on. This direct approach won't be appreciated by everyone (there were a few moments when I could have been spared yet another description of William's spunk trickling down the inside of Sugar's thighs) but this frank approach to sex gives the novel with a pleasingly modern sensibility.
The Crimson Petal and the White is a novel that demands quite a lot from its readers but rewards those who stick with it. Think of it like a totally epic nineteenth century version of Pretty Woman but with filth, repression, insanity, filth, depravity and more filth. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Hereward L.M. Proops