It’s taken me four months to finish The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, but I have loved every single page. A tale of a prostitute, Sugar, one of her customers, William Rackham, the unwilling heir to a perfume factory, and his wife, Agnes, a young woman whose health has failed her of late, all set in Victorian London. Written with the flavour of a Dickensian style and elegance, this modern novel is able to delve in to the real depths of Victorian morals, lifestyle and sexual attitudes, in a way that Dickens never could.
Eminently readable, I felt instantly swept up in the story, but there is such a depth and detail to the lives of the characters on the page, that I couldn’t read more than a chapter at a time, in order to savour and envelope myself in this society that Faber has created. There is no getting away from the fact that there are some graphic descriptions of sexual scenes, but they feel that they fit within both the plot and period of the story.
But, for me, the overall glory of this epic book, is the wealth of characters. No character is too small or insignificant not to warrant a colourful description, from the larger secondary characters of, for example, William’s brother, Henry, with his tortured goodness, to his shallow, hedonistic friends, Bodley and Ashwell, to the calculating servant, Cheeseman. All come alive on the page and alongside the descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of historic London, made the whole world of this book a completely immersive place to visit each time I picked up the book.
The end comes quite suddenly, and although you don’t really get a resolution for the characters, this felt right, as no-one’s life should be able to have all its loose ends tied up cleanly, and after spending so long with these people, I was actually quite glad to be able to think for myself where their lives would take them next.
I’m actually sad I’ve finished it, and won’t get to come back tomorrow for another installment, which must surely be the highest praise I can give any book.