The Crimson Petal and the White

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber 

Introduced by Anthony Daly, Clyro

I’ve always read a lot of books, a thousand or so every year, on average, mostly non-fiction nowadays, philosophical texts, but one of the best (most enjoyable) novels I’ve read in a long time is Michel Faber’s ‘Dickensian extravaganza’ (how else to describe it in two words?) The Crimson Petal and the White (Canongate, 2002).

The Dutch author, brought up in Australia, now living in the highlands of Scotland, has published other best-sellers, such as The Fahrenheit Twins and the Whitbread-nominated Under the Skin, neither (none) of which is half as good (or as weighty) as this one. “When a book is big,” opines the jacket blurb (a quote from Alice Sebold’s review) “it had better be good.  This one is.  Dive in. Enjoy!” A sound recommendation, in my view.

A while before discovering the book (or the author) I caught a four-part BBC adaption on TV (2011) which was visually good and well-acted, but nowhere near as penetrating (character-wise) as the original, and thus with hindsight comparatively boring,  even melodramatic. The book is neither; anything but. But reading it,  I couldn’t (quite) shake off the aforeseen presentation,  especially the physical appearance of the main characters.  Whether this was a benefit or not,  I’m undecided. The jury is still out.

The heroine, Sugar, is hardly sweet or saccharine; a precocious nineteen-year-old prostitute in mid-Victorian London who (day)dreams (in detail) of butchering her clients instead of pandering to their odious demands.  More Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) than Sonia (from Crime and Punishment). She eventually meets and inveigles her way into the affection of a wealthy middle-aged business man (a prominent manufacturer of soaps and perfumes) who becomes infatuated by her (her evident sophistication rather than any overt sexiness) and determines to ‘keep’ her all to himself, in the luxury she’s never had, but always had a hankering for. Her ‘sugar daddy’ in effect; someone (a man) she can easily outmanoeuvre when she needs to.

Increasingly, almost against her will, she becomes involved in his (immediate) family’s lives, especially his (beautiful but loony) young wife’s and their (neglected) daughter’s; their apparent salvation as they are also hers (seemingly).  The plot or storyline takes care of itself, with several sub-plots as well, but the narrative voice (the novel as a whole) is a matter of ‘Trust[worthiness]’ according to the author in an interview. This (seductive) invitation to follow,  enter the (dark luridly-lit) passages, turn the next page, whatever the risk, is very beguiling (even irresistible, so attractive are the main characters, one way or another, especially the (increasingly heroic) heroine). 

If you like long works which leave you longing they were longer,  I suspect you may relish this one as much as I have.
Here is how it begins (the first paragraph):

‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city that 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.’

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