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Book Review - The Crimson Petal and the White - Michel Faber

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(Please excuse my empty wine glass, I wasn’t feeling like wine red when I took the photo and that’s all I had in. There’s no point wasting it now is there?)

“So begins this irresistible voyage into the dark side of Victorian London. Amongst an unforgettable cast of low-lifes, physicians, businessmen and prostitutes, meet our heroine, Sugar, a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can. Be prepared for a mesmerising tale of passion, intrigue, ambition and revenge.”

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This modern ‘classic’, named after Lord Tennyson’s sonnet ‘Now Sleep the Crimson Petal‘,  is quite possibly my favourite book of all time and I feel as though it should have a lot more recognition than it has had. Published in 2002, I’m a bit late on the bandwagon but I really don’t think this material would have been suitable for half an hours reading in primary school when I was eight years old. I bought this after watching the first episode of  the BBC drama starring Ramola Garai and Chris O’Dowd. While the BBC adaptation was spectacular, nothing can beat reading the original work which Michel Faber made utterly impossible to put down. All 836 pages of it!

And that’ probably because this novel is absolutely full of sex. But none of it is romantic, some of it is quite obviously rape and a small portion is inaccurately imagined (by the characters). Faber did not set out to fob us off with some sort of Victorian love story. The Crimson Petal and the White is deliberately hard hitting and gritty. There are graphic scenes of intercourse as well as the use of toxic brews that prostitutes used as prophylactics. Through clever narration, we as readers imagine the sights and smells of London and the frequently used bed chambers. The novel is the story of Sugar, a 19 year old ‘veteran’ prostitute and Faber paints the picture of her life in the only way it can be done. 

I don’t want to bore anyone with a lengthy synopsis, nor do I want to ruin the plot for those of you who have yet to begin reading Faber’s masterpiece. So, I’ll be brief.

William Rackham, destined to be the head of Rackham perfumeries, has a weakness for the ladies of the night. Especially those like Sugar as there ‘ain’t nuffink Sugar won’t do’. So when Rackham tracks Sugar down after reading about her in an underground pamphlet of the best brothels he becomes addicted to spending time with her despite having an invalid wife at home and a child he never wishes to see. Rackham and Sugar embark on an affair and he installs her in her own accommodations in a fashionable area of town. Having Sugar so close to Notting Hill, the village that Rackham lives in with his small, broken family, begins to cause trouble as Sugar finds herself visiting the family church, the theater and even the street that the Rackhams live on. In a bid to have his cake and eat it, Rackham hires Sugar as a governess for his young daughter Sophie who grows to love Sugar in the absence of her own mother Agnes. This is where the real trouble begins. As Sugar grows closer to Sophie and Rackham withdraws from Sugar, the bitter young woman becomes set on revenge. Thus continues the downfall of William Rackham and by the end of this thrilling tale it seems as though, despite the outcome of events, Sugar really is on her way to bettering herself, just as she’d always dreamed of.

The long and the short is this: Sex is big business for Sugar; sex sells. And it sells Faber’s novel too.

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I feel as though if this were a novel written two hundred years ago it would have been firmly ahead of is time. Of course, if it were written in the 1800’s it would probably never have found a publisher but the point is, it has an old fashioned style with a very modern and undoubtedly raunchy twist.

As a female reader I would have liked to see male characters that weren’t such weak douche bags (pardon my French) but alas, we’re left with cowards and utter bastards instead of any strong and dominant types. I’m not saying there should have been a Prince Charming because that’s just not realistic but there was just that one something missing. However, the female characters, Emmeline Fox in particular, are the most engaging and while reading their chapters you often forget about the male sops. The characters really do make the story though and this is probably going to remain at the top of my favourites list for many years to come.

I did pay RRP at £9.99 but that's only because I love to support bookshops when I can and Daunt Books is a place that I would hate to see disappear. However, there are a number of places you can purchase from at very reasonable prices.

Amazon UK – Used from £0.01 +pp

Foyles – £6.99 +pp or £8.49 click & collect

The Book Depository – £7.91

W H Smiths – £6.99 +pp or free pp with £15 minimum spend

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