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The Crimson Petal And The White Paperback – 11 Sep 2003
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Although it's billed as "the first great 19th-century novel of the 21st century," The Crimson Petal and the White is anything but Victorian. It's the story of a well-read London prostitute named Sugar, who spends her free hours composing a violent, pornographic screed against men. Michel Faber's dazzling second novel dares to go where George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and the works of Charles Dickens could not. We learn about the positions and orifices that Sugar and her clients favour, about her lingering skin condition, and about the suspect ingredients of her prophylactic douches. Still, Sugar believes she can make a better life for herself.
When she is taken up by a wealthy man, the perfumer William Rackham, her wings are clipped and she must balance financial security against the obvious servitude of her position. The physical risks and hardships of Sugar's life (and the even harder "honest" life she would have led as a factory worker) contrast--yet not entirely--with the medical mistreatment of her benefactor's wife, Agnes, and beautifully underscore Faber's emphasis on class and sexual politics.
In theme and treatment, this is a novel that Virginia Woolf might have written, had she been born 70 years later. The language, however, is Faber's own--brisk and elastic--and, after an awkward opening, the plethora of detail he offers (costume, food, manners, cheap stage performances, the London streets) slides effortlessly into his forward-moving sentences. When Agnes goes mad, for instance, "she sings on and on, while the house is discreetly dusted all around her and, in the concealed and subterranean kitchen, a naked duck, limp and faintly steaming, spreads its pimpled legs on a draining board." Despite its 800-plus pages, The Crimson Petal and the White turns out to be a quick read, since it is truly impossible to put down. --Regina Marler, Amazon.com --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Unputdownable. --The Guardian
An intensely imaginative time-travel experience. --Independent.
Down-and-dirty tale of an upwardly mobile Victorian prostitute . . . a scintillating tour de force. --Sunday Telegraph
Extremely sophistiated. --Daily Telegraph
When a book is this big, it had better be good - this one is. Dive in. Enjoy! --Alice Seebold
Top customer reviews
Billed as a C21st version of the C19th novel, this engages with C19th literature(Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, Wilkie Collins, East Lynne) as much as it does with the C19th itself and is, to some extent, negotiating with what is already a representation, rather than any kind of `reality'. This isn't a book which Dickens, for example, could have written because it is steeped in `our' sensibility, rather than his, replete with historical hindsight and C21st knowledge and cultural values. As such, it tells us more about our version of the C19th than offering any kind of historical realism, however provisional that might be. That's not a criticism of the book, of course, and I would guess that Faber is completely aware of his own historicity, flagged particularly in the opening where the text speaks directly to us as readers in an alien world.
I guess after having read the reviews I hoped for a meatier story: at heart this offers us two rather predictable tales of a sexual triangle between husband/wife/prostitute-mistress, and a thwarted love affair tainted by what we see as a Victorian hang-up about sex.
So this is undoubtedly well-written and romps along effortlessly, subverting other Victorian stories as it goes. I certainly enjoyed reading it, it's entertaining, pleasurable and witty in parts - but I liked this, rather than loved it.
ps. The Kindle version has the rather irritating tick of not inserting gaps between paragraphs where the narrative switches to a different view or part of the story - not a huge problem but a niggle all the same.
The female characters are the interesting ones. The men get shorter shrift as bullies, brutes, airhead toffs, perverts and misguided eccentrics. The three main women, though - Sugar, Agnes and Mrs Emmeline Fox - are fully three-dimensional, and each gains our sympathy despite her particular flaws and less than pleasant aspects. A prostitute, a spoiled, apparently unfeeling society wife, a campaigning do-gooder: not much in common, then. Yet together, they illustrate more about the lot of women in 19th-C London than pretty much any other book I've read, but also suggest that women could, against the odds, potentially find themselves empowered to escape their destiny. I'm not sure how many Sugars there might have been in real life - how did she learn to read and write, how did she get access to her books and writing materials? But still, not impossible.
No point giving away the plot for anyone who doesn't know much of it. I'd just recommend you find the time, perhaps as a holiday read, and get stuck in. It's a thought-provoking novel that eventually engrosses and takes you well beyond the stereotypes.