I woke up with a heavy head this morning after having several obscure, vivid dreams. This came, unsurprisingly, the night after finishing The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, a book that, as I explained in my previous post, completely escaped my attention until the BBC aired their superb adaptation for television a couple of months ago, and aren’t I glad that it captured my attention. Although, through sheer greediness, I have been ready for the last couple of days to move on and pick up something new (I suppose I’m used to only taking a week or so to read a book nowadays…) closing this huge volume for the final time was quite sad, leaving behind a veritable cast of characters whose stories you will find yourself simply dying to carry on with…it did really feel like waking up from one, long, very sordid, very vivid dream.
Our ‘Crimson Petal’ Sugar is a heroine in the truest sense of the word. Born into the most unfortunate and least innocent of circumstances you would think her destined for a life of pure debauchery and misfortune. But oh no. Sugar is smart, sassy, attractive and, above all, strong, both inside and out. She captivated me throughout, watching her rise from the streets right into the arms of a man, perfumier William Rackham, who would be rather inconsequential were it not be for the opportunities that he lays out for his new found confidante that allow her to drag herself out of the squalor of her Mother’s bawdy house.
Even William’s unfortunate wife, our ‘White Petal’ Agnes Rackham, although weak both mentally and physically, leaves the male characters in this book in the dark as her lonely story of a spoilt and severely unstable woman, still a child in many ways, leaves the reader feeling both deeply frustrated and saddened as those around her fail to identify what treatment will ultimately help her to recover. (I am put in mind of a ‘mad wife in the attic’ type scenario à la Jayne Eyre, although Agnes only hurts herself…) For me, the women, even those not in the foreground like Sugar, really stole the show. The book is so lengthy that it truly does take on ‘epic’ proportions as Faber is given the room to explore every street and alley, every home and every brothel and we come to know characters such as the pious and loveable Henry Rackham, Henry’s brother, an avid admirer of another strong woman, Emmeline Fox, who works tirelessly in the streets of London for ‘The Rescue Society’ a group of women dedicated to helping ‘fallen women’ find alternative employment and safety, at the cost of her own fragile health.
This novel makes you feel like a time traveller, an adventurer exploring the depths of Victorian society. Faber has a no-holds barred approach which is simply perfect for the (initial) subject matter. I have heard many reviews bound around the term ‘Dickensian’ – as though this is something Charles Dickens would have written had he been living in the 21st century. Perhaps. Although I think it’s risky to make such sweeping comparisons. I loved this story so much that I would rather let it be judged on its own merits rather than over shadowing it with such comments. It is a thoroughly modern book (only complimented by the thoroughly modern adaptation for the small screen.) Naturally, people do tend to focus on the sex but this isn’t, in my opinion, what this book is about. It is about strong women and one woman’s journey from an abusive and squalid past to a brighter future (one she fundamentally constructs for herself, wrapping those she needs to manipulate around her little finger). The dirty details are present for a reason. They are titillating yes but they lend the novel the hard hitting and necessary realism that is sorely needed, lest anyone try and romanticise Sugar’s story. I want to hold back from discussing the plot at all costs, as I would rather you all go out and buy this immediately and discover it for yourselves. However, what I can say is that the story makes a complete about-turn in the end, and what did, at first, seem to be a novel that would spend 800 pages in the deepest darkest realms of humanity ends up quite poignantly causing the reader to reflect on the importance of innocence.