The Crimson Petal And The White Paperback – 11 Sep 2003
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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
Gripping from the first page, this immense novel is an intoxicating and deeply satisfying read. Faber's most ambitious fictional creation yet, it is sure to affirm his position as one of the most talented and brilliant writers working in the UK. Sugar, an alluring, nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs Castaway, yearns for a better life. Her ascent through the strata of 1870's London society offers us intimacy with a host of loveable, maddening and superbly realised characters. At the heart of this panoramic, multi-layered narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. The Crimson Petal and the White is a big, juicy, must-read of a novel that will delight, enthral, provoke and entertain young and old, male and female.See all Product description
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Faber is a writer of prodigious gifts; a master stylist and a natural storyteller, for sure, but he has that extra that is much rarer; a writer of luminous humanity. His apprehension of the human condition, and his expression of it through the many vivid characters in this book, is plainly evident. Reading Faber is a delicious and delirious joy-ride - here the dark underbelly of Victorian London is exposed in a manner of which, I am sure, Dickens himself would have approved. It would be tempting, on the basis of this book, to regard Faber as a natural successor to Dickens, except that his other books show that he has other enormous guns in his arsenal. I would say that he was "one to watch", were it not for his announcement that he would write no more novels.
Like its Victorian counterparts this is a long and in many places a bit of a rambling novel, which may put some off, and also it does have quite a few characters. The narrative does have authorial interjections which were once quite common in novels but fell by the wayside before the 19th Century was over. Taking place mainly through 1874-1876 there are places where characters reminisce further back in time when they were younger, but the main body is set in this particular time frame. The 1870s was a decade of change and modernity in many ways, which results could definitely be felt right up into the latter half of the 20th Century, and you do get an impression of changing times in this story.
We start off in the world of prostitution where we are eventually introduced to Sugar, a prostitute that it must be admitted isn’t the most beautiful of women, but is intelligent, eager to do most things, and is quite intelligent compared to her contemporaries. As William Rackham takes a very large interest in this prostitute he suddenly finds that his life is on the up, as well as Sugar’s. In his determination to have Sugar for himself William knows that he needs money and thus pushes himself to take over the reins of the family business, much to the surprise and pleasure of his father. We thus get to know the Rackham family, not only William and his family, but his elder brother as well, and their servants, acquaintances and so on.
As we see Sugar change from being more than just a prostitute, into a friend, and even a governess we also see how changes come about in William’s household, especially with his mentally ill wife, who alas has a brain tumour that has been undiscovered. What follows is quite an absorbing read, but I will admit that this is a relatively large novel and the narrative pace is quite slow. If like me you are used to reading large 19th Century novels then you will probably lap this up, but if such books, and as here a modern interpretation of such is not something that you normally read, then you may find yourself being bored. Personally though I love this and it is worth reading.
I don't know how to classify this story. When I first started reading it again, I kept thinking how very different it was from Faber's other book, Under the Skin. But the more I read, the more the similarities struck me. Both of the main female protagonists are repressed, abused by men, forced to represent themselves to the world in a way that distorted their 'real' selves. They survived in a man's world only on men's terms, giving the impression that they were happy to do so, but inside - my goodness, inside the bile and the bitterness and the resentment that seethed. Not that either of these women were perfect. Far, very far from it. Sugar is a product of her horrible upbringing. She's grasping and she's cold. She has no idea how to express or feel affection. She is out to get what she can get. At first. It's not love for her protector that saves her though (thankfully) but 'love' of the two women who come into her life - Agnes and Sophie. Sugar 'saves' them in her own unique way. We assume. Of course we'll never know, because of that controversial ending. And by the end of the book, Sugar has also - not quite saved, but started to become herself. To cast off the disguise she's been forced to wear as a prostitute in various forms, and to define herself.
Not sure if this makes any sense. I don't want to give anything of the book away - lucky you, if you haven't read it. It's also funny, and it's sad, and it makes you so angry, and it is a bit disgusting. It's compelling, beautifully written, and it's most importantly, a very, very satisfying story. Did I say I loved it? Fab!