Thursday 30 December 2010

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

I love long, rambling, Victorian style novels, and this one had been high up on my 'to-read' list ever since I first saw it mentioned on a friend's blog.  When my local library finally acquired a copy, I had to read it.

Synopsis: Sugar is a prostitiute in late 19th century London.  Forced into prostituition by her mother at a young age ('here's a gentleman to keep you warm'), she hates men and spends her time writing a revenge novel.  Soon to be afflent business-man William Rackham falls for her and first buys her a place to live, and then installs her as the governess to his daughter Sophie.  As Sugar rises up socially, she meets a large cast of characters from all walks of society.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

This was an unputdownable book.  I was worried about the length before starting (800+ pages, small font) but within the first chapter I was sucked into Victorian London and just wanted to read on and on.  Sugar's world jumps out at you from the page and it feels like a true representation.  There's no happy ever afters,  prostitution is not at all glamorised and bad things happen to good people all of the time.

By far the biggest strength of Faber's novel is the characters.  Even the minor characters were well developed and rounded (Caroline, the doctor) and the major characters started to feel like old friends by the end of the book.  Faber seemed to have an especial talent for female characterisation - the determination and drive of Sugar was contrasted wonderfully with Rackham's wife, Agnes, a woman who had managed to bear a child without knowing anything about how her body functions and thinks that a demon is causing her menstruation.  I also had a soft spot for Mrs Fox, a widow who didn't care about society's rules and was trying to help prostitutes in her own blundering way.  Compared to this, the male characters were equally complex, but weak.

This was also a book that had a lot to say on a number of issues: prostititution, the role of women, class, poverty, depression, religion, insanity, healthcare, attitudes to children, social climbing and marriage. But thankfully all this took a back seat to the story and Faber never came off as preachy.  All of the characters went through a decent amount of development and by the end of the book I didn't want it to be over.  I could happily have read about the next 30 or so year's of Sugar's life.

The only criticism I can make, that stopped it from receiving 5 stars, was the abrupt nature of the ending.  Even though I can appreciate the artistic merit in the ending, I wanted to know what happened next!

Recommended for historical and gothic fiction fans.


  1. This absolutely sounds wonderful! I love a good Victorian and Gothic read - and 800 pages can be daunting, but if the story is right, it can feel like a comfortable place to sit in whilst reading away! I am going to see if I can track this one down and maybe I can download it on my Nook - the number of pages is definitely not one that I want to lug around on business travel! Thanks for putting it on the radar!

  2. Hmmm I might have to give that one a closer look. I've pulled it off the library shelf a couple of times but, yes, 800+ pages is rather . . . heavy.