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Book Review: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the Whitecrimson petal and the white
Michel Faber

Canongate, 2002
★★★★★

The Crimson Petal and the White begins with our omniscient, sardonic narrator shattering the fourth wall and physically leading the reader through a decrepit alley slum in London. We walk through pale gas-lamp on mucky cobblestones, the smell of waste and unwashed bodies overpowering. Thus the stage is set for this neo-Victorian classic, which from the first promises lurid realities and ugly truths.

After all, this is how the narrator begins the tale: “Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them.”

Slowly, our witty narrator introduces us to our cast of characters: Sugar, a nineteen-year-old prostitute known for being well-educated and willing to do whatever her clients want, all with a smile on her face, but who also happens to be writing a violent novel whereupon she revenges herself on the men of the world; William, a feckless, self-centered, and somewhat despicable aspiring novelist and reluctant heir to a perfume factory; Agnes, William’s childlike and religiously devout wife, suffering from a brain tumor no one can diagnose and which is slowly driving her mad; Henry, William’s religious older brother who aspires to be a clergyman; Mrs. Emmeline Fox, Henry’s good friend who works to reform prostitutes; and finally, Sophie, William and Agnes’ neglected daughter, whose mother, traumatized by her birth, refuses to acknowledge her existence.

When William seeks out Sugar, he becomes utterly captivated by her, and she, being clever, manipulative, and ambitious, uses his infatuation to claw her way out of the brothel she grew up working in, under the watchful and uncaring eye of her own mother. Sugar becomes the linchpin of William’s world and of the novel as well; she works her way to kept mistress, business adviser, and finally, governess, installed in William’s own house. She is an astonishing, blazing character, crafted with care and deftness: clever and intellectual, quick-thinking and witty, ruthlessly pragmatic but with a deeply compassionate and romantic side that manifests itself from the first moment she is introduced, staying up all night holding the hand of a dying prostitute. She has become one of my favorite characters of all time.

But she is not the only female character to astound; in fact, I would say that this entire novel is driven by its women rather than its men, including the various minor characters (invariably prostitutes) that feature. Emmeline Fox in particular stands out as a colorful character; incredibly religious and yet not at all a zealot, she betrays a mischievous side in her friendship with Henry. She is a “modern” woman by Victorian standards: unusually frank, unusually outspoken, unusually open-minded, and unusually unembarrassed to speak of her work with prostitutes. Agnes, though very much a product of her time and upbringing, and assailed by madness (a hat-tip to the “madwoman in the attic” trope?), is also an avid writer herself, beginning with a series of diaries and ending with a rather deranged book of “lessons” for fellow religious devotees.

The novel is brimming with period details; it mimics Victorian novels not only in its narrative form but in its style and content as well. 19th-century London comes alive here, with all its slums, back alleys, diseases, cheap brothels, and even the vaginal douches prostitutes use to prevent pregnancy. There is no shying away from the reality of impoverished 19th-century life, no care for modern readers’ sensibilities or politeness; the reader is thrown headfirst into it all. There is no shying away from horrors, abuse, or bodily functions. It makes for an immersive experience unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Not only that, but it is written with such humor and panache that I was not once bored throughout the entirety of this gargantuan novel. I will grant that it’s probably too long and suffers slightly from saggy middle syndrome, but Faber’s skill is such that I didn’t even care when the plot had slowed down to a snail’s pace. I was simply delighted by the humorous writing. This book is so much funnier than you would think, given its content, but it actually had me laughing out loud because of the droll narrator, who strikes me very much as an elderly, retired prostitute sitting by the fire and telling this tale with her tongue firmly in her cheek.

I do believe the narrator is a woman, though most reviews refer to the narrator as male. In fact, I like to think that perhaps the narrator is Sugar, having finally published a novel, after the book’s rather ambiguous ending leaves her future unclear. Faber actually teases at this meta possibility; in Sugar’s novel, one of the lines is the very same line that opens The Crimson Petal and the White. It would be comforting to imagine that after everything she has suffered, Sugar has found a modicum of happiness and success, as she deserves. I normally despise unclear endings – and omniscient narration, in fact – but both techniques just fit here. And really, the writing is just masterful: elegant, cleverly constructed, and suited to a neo-Victorian novel, yet readable and compelling, suited to appeal to a modern reader. It’s the sort of book I want to have on my shelves just so I can occasionally pop it open to a random page and start reading, only to savor the rich prose.

So, yes, in case it wasn’t already obvious, I absolutely loved this book. I actually began reading it on a complete whim, curious only to sample the pages, not truly convinced I would read this near-epic this month, when I had so many other books waiting to be read. But from the first page, the narration grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I just kept reading and reading, telling myself I would only read another page to get a feel for the writing, but I just couldn’t stop. Even the unfamiliar narration style didn’t deter me, a testament to the skill with which this book was crafted. I implore you: read this book. Don’t let the length intimidate you; it never impeded my enjoyment. And there is so very much to enjoy here.

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