The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber

Michel Faber’s second full novel is, well, a full novel. It chronicles the rise of Sugar, an alluring teenage prostitute in late Victorian London, as she attempts to better her lot through the seduction and retention of one of her clients. This is a massive novel in every sense of the word – my hardback copy runs to 864 dense pages and there was no way that I could take it on my regular commute… It’s had to wait until a break from work for me to read it. The amazing thing is that although the sheer size seems initially daunting the book is incredibly welcoming, easy to read and utterly enthralling. The attention to detail throughout the book is fantastic. From the fashions of the time, through the varying religious attitudes and on to the sexual mores this book draws the reader in to the most realistic of worlds.

We first meet Sugar in a rundown brothel in the underbelly of London. Soon after we meet the man destined to make her his mistress, one William Rackham. He is dissolute, with a permanently unwell wife and the demands of his father for him to run the family business weighing heavily on him and his household. His first meeting with Sugar is to change all that…

It is impossible to get across the scale of this book, or the attention to detail. Faber has clearly spent a considerable amount of time researching every aspect of Victorian life in tremendous detail, and it is a sign of his skill as an author that he manages to include all of these details in the book without it becoming disjointed or turgid. The prose is simple yet beguiling, the detail is easily digestible and the characters are easy to identify with and (mostly) likeable, or at least understandable. Despite its size I ripped through it at a fair rate of knots and was sad to see it finish. The clarity and detail of the world that he creates is such that I really did find myself wandering the streets of 1870s London, slipping from the slums of St Giles through to the villages of Kensington and Ladbroke Grove.

This isn’t for the faint hearted though. While in some ways this is a very accurate take on the literature of the time it also makes the most of it’s modern readership and doesn’t shy away from the sexual relationships between the characters, or any of the other grimmer aspects of Victorian life. The sly nods in the narrative to the reader’s time and place are repeatedly backed up by slips away from the style or content of the time, making for a frequently very, erm, earthy book.

I’m still thinking about the book now, even though I finished it about two weeks ago. The scale and detail of it means that only a calendar year passes within the book. In that year William and Sugar meet, William decides to take on the family business (to provide him enough money to keep Sugar for himself), Sugar becomes William’s mistress…. While the attention to detail is quite amazing each of the major events is in fact very ambiguous. The reader finds themself devouring every little detail of “The Season” one minute and the minutiae of a whore’s life the next, yet each major plot event is never fully explained or resolved. Even the ending is strangled, limp, deliberately inconclusive.

One of the characters is asked near the end of the book “you wouldn’t want to read a thousand pages, would you?” to which the answer comes back “I’d read a thousand million pages if the words were simple enough”. And here, I think, is the rub. This is reading for reading’s sake, words for words’ sake… Faber takes us on a fantastic journey through Victorian London, that swoops across the rooftops and takes brief looks at the lives of the inhabitants of the houses below. There is quite deliberately no point, no message, no moral – simply a very enjoyable read. If you have a long trip coming I suggest that you fit the paperback in your luggage, safe in the knowledge that you are carrying one of the most involving books you’ll read in a while…