A Lesson in Contrast
They make an odd pair, Caroline and Sugar, as they walk up the street together: the older woman small-boned, round-faced, swell-bosomed, so neat and shapely in comparison to her companion, a long, lithe creature wreathed in a peau-de-soie dress the colour of moss.
As one might expect from the title, this book is mostly about the contrast between ‘bad’ and ‘good,’ or at least those considered ‘crimson’ and those whose reputations are pure as the driven snow. The book follows the story of Sugar, a prostitute in Victorian England who has dragged herself up from a brothel in the worst part of London to a position in her mother’s…’house.’ When she meets a rather lazy businessman with some unusual sexual proclivities, she manages to rise even further, pushing him up the social ladder as well.
Meanwhile, two lovely church people suffer fits of unrequited passion for one another, a crazy woman thinks she is being spirited off to a convent by angels in her sleep, and a little girl is hidden from her mother because her mother is in denial that she ever had a child…
Clearly this is a book full of Victorian-style drama.
It’s also a book that eventually comes to the conclusion that there isn’t a lot of difference between ‘crimson’ and ‘white’ petals. The ‘good’ people are just as sad and messed up as the people who are willing to bend some rules in order to rise in life. Poor Mrs Fox is just as lonely as Sugar at the end…or perhaps even more so, as the plot develops.
Michel Faber has a flair for plot, but also a flair for atmosphere that, as critics have pointed out, rivals Dickens’. Clearly this novel is carefully researched, and the amount of detail in descriptions of Victorian birth-control practices and the sheet-changing habits of the better brothels is amazing. Mr. Faber must have researched this for years, or else he just has a historian friend of whom he can ask questions constantly.
One main stylistic point I found interesting is the first-person narrator who pops in and out through the story. It doesn’t detract from the novel’s development — far from it. On the contrary, I was gripped by the narrator from the very first paragraph, part of which reads:
‘The city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate….You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend….The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.’
Not only is this statement profoundly true, it goes straight to the heart of the reader’s illusions and kills them, leaving the reader open to wherever the author wants to lead them. A brilliant trick, actually, and deeply enjoyable. I don’t believe it’s ever clearly explained who this seemingly omniscient person is who is guiding the reader through these people’s lives. Maybe it’s meant to be the book itself; maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Weighing in at 835 pages, this is certainly an epic book, and as such, the plot appears to drag a bit towards the end…but it’s probably not so much the plot that drags as the reader’s energy. While this is exactly the sort of book I enjoy reading on airplanes, maybe The Crimson Petal and the White is best savoured slowly, chapter by chapter.