This is No Sugar Coated Tale

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The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, book reviewIt is London in the 1870s and it is common practice for all men who can afford it to head for a high-class prostitute when they can. One of these prostitutes is Sugar, who has the added benefit of doing things that other girls generally won’t do. William Rackham, the heir of Rackham Perfumeries, hears of Sugar and seeks her out. Thrilled by what he finds, he moves Sugar into her own lodgings, for which he pays, so that he can ensure Sugar is his and his alone. Sugar, a clever, street-wise teenager, soon finds a way to establish herself in Rackham’s own home, as a governess to his daughter, Sophie. Rackham’s wife has a brain tumour, although to everyone around her, she just appears to be barking mad. What exactly is Sugar planning to do? Will she help Mrs Rackham, or is she intending to get rid of her?

The Crimson Petal and the White has been described by numerous people as something very akin to a Charles Dickens novel. It is easy to see why this is the case. It describes the back streets of London and the depravity that can be found there in over 800 pages. The characters are colourfully described and there is a strong sense of good and evil. However, there is one very important difference; Charles Dickens didn’t even attempt to add anything untoward or sexual into his books. Faber, on the other hand, revels in sex using all orifices and details douching and bowel movements in a way that is not ideal if you are eating. If this is a Dickens novel, it comes complete with warts and all. As to whether it should be compared to the quality of Dickens’ work, it is certainly a really excellent attempt.

Our heroine is Sugar. She isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination; she has self-preservation on her mind and how she achieves that is occasionally to the detriment of other people. Her decision to move into Rackham’s home, with his permission, of course, is selfish from the point of Mrs Rackham – although, to be fair, by that point, Mrs Rackham is away with the fairies and is barely aware of her existence. She is beautifully described as a tall, almost gangly redhead with some kind of flaky skin condition, yet it is clear that there is something about her that appeals to men. This is no feeble woman. She is prepared to fight for her life and she is well aware of the perfidies of men, although she hopes that William is going to be different. Sugar is a great character and deserves to be remembered.

William Rackham, although not strictly evil, more misguided, is nevertheless supposed to be the man that the readers hate. This is not difficult to do. He cheats on his wife, is complicit in inviting his prostitute lover into his home, ignores his child and brother and is generally spineless. It is, however, clear that he is shaped by society and its views on what is correct and proper, rather than any deliberate urge to hurt all those around him. His character does not develop to quite the same extent as Sugar’s, but there is nevertheless much depth to his character and the progression as the story unfolds is a real pleasure to read. The secondary characters, although peripheral, are nevertheless described beautifully and really help to set the scene.

“The characters are truly stunning and the attention to detail is excellent…”

Although Michel Faber is obviously a man, and a modern day one at that, his aim appears to be to show the horrendous position in which nearly all women found themselves at the time the story is set. Totally reliant on men, to be without one, like the widow, Mrs Fox, for example, was a sign of something being wrong. Mrs Fox dresses in a slovenly manner, often not wearing a corset, and spends her life liaising with prostitutes on the streets of London, when she should really be spending her days at home embroidering or raising children. Turning to prostitution is a situation to which many women who wanted a little independence were forced to turn; although of course, once a prostitute, they would never be a good wife for anyone. Faber, however, doesn’t turn the story into a sob fest – although it isn’t entirely without sympathy. It is told very matter-of-factly and feels incredibly realistic.

The start of the novel is perhaps slightly odd. It introduces us to a friend of Sugar’s, who then barely features in the rest of the book. The way that the characters are introduced is a little wooden; it reads as though the narrator is whizzing us through the streets of London, rather like one of the ghosts from A Christmas Carol. This is obviously to set the scene, but it feels a little awkward. Once the story proper begins, however, it is fantastically intriguing and really plays on the mind. This is a whopping novel, at over 800 pages of tight writing; nevertheless, it doesn’t feel anything like as long as it could have. By the second half of the book, it is very hard to put it down, because it just isn’t clear which direction it is going to take. The ending, when it comes, could disappoint some, because it is a little ambiguous. I thought it was perfect and it does leave an opening for a sequel, should Faber ever decide to write one.

There is so much to The Crimson Petal and the White and virtually all of it is good, even excellent, provided that the descriptions of sex, filth, madness, urinating and bowel movements don’t offend. I should point out that the sex is rarely gratuitous and isn’t really there to titillate – it is described so straightforwardly that it just feels like a necessary part of the story. It certainly is a necessary part of the relationship between Rackham and Sugar. The characters are truly stunning and the attention to detail is excellent – Faber must have spent months putting this together. Many will be put off by the length; but it really is worth persevering. Some of Faber’s other work is far from being of this standard, but this is his piece de resistance and really deserves a read. Highly recommended.

Advantages: Excellent portrayal of Victorian London and its characters
Disadvantages: Some will not like the constant sexual references; length

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Published by Canongate Books, 984 pages
Thanks to Canongate for providing a free review copy of the book.


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Crimson Petal and the White (The)
by Michel Faber

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Written by sunmeilan

My background is varied. I studied Chinese at Durham University in the UK, Renmin University in Beijing and Nanjing University. I then lived in China for many years, before returning to the UK to study criminology at the London School of Economics, from where I have a Masters. I have published articles on drug treatment and the criminal justice system. Although I have now left this field, I do enjoy crime fiction and reviewing books from this genre. I also have a strong interest in Chinese modern fiction.

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