Tackling Michel Faber’s 800-page doorstop as the 44th book out of 50 in a year, was not my wisest move. It was a bit like stopping at the 23rd mile of the London Marathon to fill my pockets with rocks.
Set in mid 1870’s London, the novel seems Dickensian but, unlike Dickens, Faber’s novel has a comparatively small cast of characters. ‘The Crimson Petal and the White‘ tells the tale of, Sugar, a prostitute. Sugar is initially hampered by her lowly upbringing and harsh beginnings, pimped by her mother. However, her fortunes appear to change when she is taken from ‘Mrs Castaway’s’ backstreet brothel by a client who adopts her as his mistress. But that is not to say that Sugar is ‘saved’ by William Rackham; she is just enslaved to him in a different way; one which, she comes to realise, compromises her freedom and her choices just as much as when she was a common street-walker. Installed in a beautiful flat with a proper bath, Sugar has to keep her wits about her in order to guarantee her place in William’s affections. As well as being Sugar’s patron, William is also juggling a flourishing perfumery business, a sick wife, a gaggle of female servants and a withdrawn child. As Mrs Rackham’s health deteriorates, Sugar makes an attempt to save her from incarceration.
The skill of the book is in the detail (the devil is always in the detail). Faber is unsentimental; his depiction of bodily functions – be they fornication, contraception, defecation, mastication or ejaculation, are stark and almost factual. It is clear that he has thoroughly researched the practicalities of life in Victorian London, which were harsh and filthy, despite the rapid advance of improvements in sanitation and technology. Whilst the outline of the novel’s plot would fit on a postcard, the intricacies of the characters’ daily lives and dilemmas form the basis of the book’s readability.
To return to my opening analogy, my experience of long-distance running is quite limited (well, non-existent actually) but there were times during the reading of this novel when I really, really wanted to give up. It was only the thought of how much time I had already invested that kept me pushing on to the tape and then I would get a second wind and feel spurred on to read a bit more. I’d say this is a winter, curl-up-by-the-fire-with-a-hot-chocolate book rather than a beach read, as it does require some concentration to really explore and appreciate the nuance and detail.
If you start it now, you might get it finished by the time the clocks go forward again! (But if you are really short of time, you could watch the adaptation on DVD, starring Romola Garai as Sugar)