Michel Faber’s elegant postmodern Victorian novel The Crimson Petal and the White is absolutely the best thing I’ve read all year. I’ve been struggling to find others that fulfill the void ever since, and haven’t come close yet. I originally picked up the book when I heard that Gillian Anderson was set to play Mrs. Castaway in the upcoming BBC miniseries adaptation. As a major X-Files fan, I wanted to see how Agent Scully could make the leap from a prim skeptic to a 19th century brothel madam, so I picked up the Kindle version.
A note on the Kindle edition (and I’m assuming this goes for other e-book versions of this title): the conversion is terrible and entire sections of the book seem to be missing, making for a jarring reading experience. I’ll definitely be picking up this title in print, just to compare it with the e-book. I noticed similar errors in the e-book version of Under the Skin (also by Michel Faber). I was incredibly annoyed by the slapdash conversion process in both cases, but both books’ overall quality kept me reading.
Spurned by his mad wife, harangued by his father into taking over the family’s perfume empire, failing at all his “gentlemanly” endeavors, William Rackham is less than the man he thought he was. When he meets a prostitute named Sugar, William’s world is transformed. Determined to keep her carnal company all to himself, William hatches a plan to take over the family business, not out of filial piety, but to become rich enough to buy Sugar’s affection permanently. Sugar, meanwhile, dreams of escaping life in the brothel and publishing her novel, The Rise and Fall of Sugar, a roman-a-clef about her life as a prostitute. Realizing that William’s love, and her new-found lifestyle, could evaporate in an instant, Sugar secretly sets about learning everything about William, so she could secure her place in his life. What she learns about his precarious family life could tear their worlds asunder.
This novel’s most important element is its unique voice, which carries the reader from page to page, scene to scene. You could read The Crimson Petal and the White for a good five hours and not even realize it. I thought this 800-page-plus doorstop would take me at least several weeks to finish, but I breezed through it in about five days. Once you’re immersed, Faber’s mesmerizing voice grabs hold of you like quicksand and does not let go. In order to plant the reader firmly inside the story’s world, Faber skillfully uses two types of narrator to weave his tale. The novel opens with the omniscient narrator, who invites the reader into this world with a warning. This narrators drops essential hints throughout the story, but allows each of the characters to tell the story through their point-of-view. In the wrong hands, the different narration styles would be a mess, but in this case, they only add to the book’s intrigue.
The other major element is the characters. While they’re not always likeable, they are always fascinating (and, of course, dark mirrors of each other). Sugar is the glue that holds the entire story together. When we first meet her, she’s the antithesis of the stereotypical Victorian prostitute: charming, well-read, and ladylike. Yet, she has a deadly edge and a sense of self-preservation that’s kept her alive and kept others at a safe distance. Rackham, for all his self-pity and pomp, is more difficult to like, but without his blind desire to conquer the world (and his women), we’d scarcely have a story. It’s his own selfish choices that sets the plot rolling (and his world a-crumbling). Agnes is the quintessential mad woman in the attic, and the one character I felt most sorry for, because Victorian society was so ill-equipped to understand her genuine illness. I still wonder how the story would have turned out for her had this novel been set in modern times. Even the minor characters, from the prostitute Caroline to the quack doctor, are three-dimensional and real, and to the story’s verisimilitude.
Challenging, entertaining, shocking, and, yes, literary, The Crimson Petal and the White is unlike any other Victorian novel you’ve ever read, and I insist you read this one.