Monday, 22 August 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber : A Review by Judith Arnopp

Don’t read this book if you are offended by disagreeable truths. It contains explicit, unpleasant sexual content and is not for the faint hearted. It is a stark view of Victorian London– a stark-naked view that is very different to the image that Victorian London wished to project. The author rips away the pretty drapes and shows us, not just the legs of the table but the filth that lies hidden beneath.
The narrator takes the reader by the hand and leads you through dark alleyways to the places where only the destitute or the criminal live. Here you become so involved in the lives of the people you meet that you will be implicit in the crimes witnessed.
This is not a pretty story of simpering Victorian girls who lift their petticoats for a penny; it is an honest, unflinching, often brutal perspective of the darker side of human nature. As others have said before me, Faber takes his reader to the places that Dickens and Wilkie Collins could only hint at.
Every character is superbly drawn, warts and all, twisted, tortured, selfish and very, uncomfortably human. You will meet rich punters and the poorest of working girls and they are so convincing that you might think you have met them somewhere before.
Sugar is not a stereotypical tart with a heart, she is an enigma, from her curious skin condition to her traumatised mind. One minute you will think she loves William, the next that she despises him and this keeps the reader hanging, on the edge of his seat, wondering what jaw dropping surprise she will reveal next.
Is she a champion of women or an anti-heroine? As a prostitute she is an object for the use of all men but she only really loses control of her own destiny when she ties herself to just one man – William Rackham; then her choices are taken out of her hands.
Sugar takes all her frustration and contempt for men and pours it into a hastily scrawled novel that is so overflowing with hatred, disgust and perversion that she knows she can never allow the world to see it, for they wouldn’t care to look.
Whether you want to or not, when reading this novel you will require all your senses. You will smell the shit, feel the cold; taste the hunger, hear the weeping of the destitute and scream with them, frustrated by the ignorance.
You will share the degradation that women like Sugar were subjected to and try as you might you will not be able to comprehend why so many prostitutes clung to their way of life. It is not possible for us to understand why they considered work in the factories to be so much worse. The choice was between a fast, gay life of sin and an early grave, or a life of drudgery and hunger that would end just as prematurely. For some women, things are not so different today.
Victorian London tried to conceal its darker nature beneath a façade of respectability just as Agnes Rackham’s delicate beauty conceals a voracious tumour that is eating away at her brain. Sugar’s sexual allure conceals a deep, twisting loathing for the male species and everyone else is hiding something, pretending to be what they are not. Just as the broad leafy streets of the rich are a veneer on the crumbling tenements of the poor, so do the human residents of nineteenth century Notting Hill project a decent Christian face as they button their expensive waistcoats very tightly over soiled undergarments.
It is not exaggerating to say that Mr Faber takes all this ugliness and wraps it in the most beautiful prose I have ever read, and I have read many books. This novel is one to keep. It rests easily among the greatest novels of all time and will, without doubt, come to be a classic. The Crimson Petal and the White is not just a story, it is something real and that is why it makes such uncomfortable reading.

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