I hate to seem prejudiced, but there are certain literary devices which I tend to find very off-putting in a book. The first is present tense narration: logically the action of the book can have taken place in the past or it could be going to take place in the future, but I’m always very aware that it isn’t actually happening right now. This is something particularly evident in the case of historical novels as it patently isn’t 1645 at the moment, for example. My other pet hate is the author addressing the reader directly (I make an exception for Jane Eyre), especially when the reader is spoken to as ‘you’ and the author tells the reader what ‘you’ are doing. I’m always very aware that, no, I’m not walking down a cobbled street and looking at all the shops on either side of me. I’m certainly not doing it in 1645. By rights then, I should have loathed Michel Faber’s doorstop of a Victorian historical novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, employing as it does both of these techniques. However, it utilises them both beautifully, creating a fascinating reading experience and one of the best books that I’ve read so far this year.
As anyone who has seen the recent BBC adaptation of the book will know (I haven’t, for the record), The Crimson Petal and the White tells the story of Sugar, a girl forced into prostitution by her mother the famed brothel keeper Mrs Castaway. Well-read and highly intelligent, Sugar spends her spare time writing a vicious novel in which her protagonist gleefully tortures and murders the men with whom she has sex. Her life changes when she attracts the attentions of William Rackham, the heir to the Rackham Perfumeries fortune who refuses to take an interest in the business until the desire to possess Sugar as his own means that he needs to make money in order to set her up as his mistress. As Sugar becomes totally dependent on William, she also becomes more and more involved in all aspects of his life, from his business to his child-like wife Agnes, to his young daughter Sophie.
The novel opens with this passage, which instantly draws the reader in:
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city 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.
When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you’re actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street full of unlit houses and unknown people. (p. 3)
The voice is powerful, cynical, intelligent and utterly absorbing. It acknowledges the problems that quite a lot of readers have with present tense narratives then brushes them aside as unimportant, which is perhaps why I was less bothered by it than I usually am. It is an atmospheric and compelling beginning and the rest of the novel easily lives up to the high expectations that this creates.
Faber is not only brilliant at setting scenes and giving the writing a real period feel, he is also a master of characterisation; although the story may seem a little like the seedy underbelly of a Dickens’ novel, the characters who people if could not be further from Dickens’ enjoyable but often one dimensional charicatures. Faber makes his characters all so distinct with totally different voices and, frequently, some strange quirk which allows them to transcend the stereotype of their role within the book. Sugar, for example, has a skin disease, yet she is still desired by the men of London because it is rumoured that she will do anything. This is not because she is desperate, but because when the reader meets her she genuinely does not seem to care what happens to her outer self as long as she is able to preserve the inner self who writes and plots and schemes. Mrs Castaway is set apart by her peculiar collection of pictures of Mary Magdalen, which she pastes into scrapbooks. Sophie has a perfect childhood logic and solemnity which just leap off the page.
The most fascinating character for me was Agnes, William Rackham’s wife. Never have I read more convincingly written madness. It has its own internal logic which makes it seem completely understandable, even as the reader knows that Agnes is mad. Her attempts to seek solace in the Convent of Health and her abiding, if somewhat off-kilter, Catholic faith are touching as they show how deeply unhappy and unsettled she is in her current life. Her horror and frantic desperation to escape the life she leads, which does not improve after Rackham regains his fortune, are so well drawn that they feel almost tangible. Her madness is interspersed with periods of complete lucidity, when she is possibly even more unhappy, which make her all the more compelling. The way that the reader discovers Agnes along with Sugar through reading her hidden diaries is a clever stroke and helps to bind the reader into their complicity which will become so important.
Given the subject matter of The Crimson Petal and the White and other reviews and comments that I’d read about the sex in the book, I was surprised at how restrained I found it. Although there is a fair amount of sex which is described in detail, it feels clinical and matter of fact rather than graphic and titilating, and it is never gratuitous. Because Sugar and her fellows see nothing unusual or even particularly exciting about the acts that they perform, they come across as rather mundane and this, conversely and rather brilliantly, makes them even more disturbing than if they were luridly detailed encounters designed to be erotic. It is all the more sordid because it is presented as being so normal.
All in all, this is a fabulously written book which evokes the Victorian era through a series of unique characters who fascinate and repel in equal measure. I’m definitely in the market for a copy of The Apple, a collection of stories which fills in some more details of Sugar’s story and follows some of the lesser characters. I only hope it is anywhere near as good as this book.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Published by Harcourt, 2002, pp. 838. Originally published in 2002.