The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

crimsonThe Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber, Canongate 2002

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine from other stories you’ve read that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

Critics have said this is the book Charles Dickens could have written if he wasn’t constricted by the style of the 19th century. On the one hand this is insulting to Michel Faber as if he cannot just be admired for writing a wonderful book in his own right but on the other hand…this is as wonderful as any Dickens novel and was obviously influenced by that writer.

What sets this apart from other historical fiction is how the omniscient narrator leads the reader around like we are invisible tourists and he the voyeuristic tour guide. The reader is shown a very different London from the one we are used to and while I watched the characters eat cake in a public square (and was informed about how obscene this is for this time period) or poked nosily around their houses and read their private diaries I felt more lost in the story than I would have with a more traditional storytelling method.

The story primarily starts in the seedier parts of London and introduces us to various characters; most importantly the prostitute Sugar. The array of characters is vast and yet not one of them was not memorable or superfluous. They don’t just stay in the roles they first appear in either. Amongst other things Sugar is a writer, Caroline a mother, Emmeline Fox lives on the borders of what is acceptable and Henry did not turn out to be as I expected him at all. Agnes is a wonderful black comic despite the tragedy of her mind. I thought I knew what the book was about; sex, violence and vice but the as I went further in the beating heart of the book turned out to be something quite different and infinitely more precious.

The many characters are all flawed and have many undesirable qualities that Faber doesn’t hesitate to illustrate to us over and over and yet the only character I could not like and actually despised was William Rackham; the man Sugar uses to drag herself up the rigid, judging class system. The female characters; Sugar and Caroline the sex workers, Emmeline Fox of the rescue society, Agnes the “mad wife in the attic” are all in their way made of harder and more admirable stuff than William Rackham but society and money has given him the privilege and weapons they lack. His brother, Henry, in contrast could have had these privileges but threw them away from himself in his idealism.

I loved this book. The writing is delicious and sensory and full of black humour and I had so much fun reading it which is what a great book is all about. I can’t wait to read the short stories that accompany it.

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