Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

(In which everything is surprising.)


“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them”, goes the introductory warning in Michel Faber’s novel about a nineteen-year-old prostitute named Sugar and his patron, the future owner of Rackham Perfumeries, William. The speaker of this warning leads the reader down to dark alleys slimy with muck and noisy with yells of mongers and pathetic pleas and offers of beggars and prostitutes competing for the attention of passers-by. This is where the 895-page tour starts.
The first itinerary is Church Lane, St. Giles, in the house where Caroline, Sugar’s friend and also a prostitute, lives. It only needs several minutes of being guided through all the external and internal filth of the place for the reader to realize that this is not the place one wants to stay in. Luckily, Caroline takes us to a more decent (compared to St. Giles, of course) Silver Street where Sugar is to be met. Sugar then takes the visitor to Mrs. Castaway’s house of ill repute and to The Fireside, a tavern Sugar frequents in search for customers. From here, the course of an unusual romance between a man who had been refusing to manage a perfume empire and therefore has been suffering an increasingly unbearable financial torture from his father, and a whore whose only dream is (well, apart from publishing her rather gory novel which depicts her desire to be the female version of Jack the Ripper) to escape the embarrassing and disgusting life in a whorehouse run by her own mother, begins to take shape.
The affair started out of William’s curiosity regarding a very inviting article from More Sprees in London – Hints for Men About Town, with advice for greenhorns which features Sugar as the most sought-after girl in Mrs. Castaway’s. After a night of being with her, William decides that Sugar is to be his and only his. And for that to materialize, he needs to elevate from a distressed husband with a blurry future to a man of great consequence. He eventually becomes able to afford exclusive patronage of Sugar, and later on, a luxurious lodging at Priory Close as their love nest. Their dangerously clandestine relationship takes the visitor to omnibus and carriage rides to William’s mansion at Chepstow Villas, Notting Hill to his vast lavender farms; to the shabby house of William’s brother Henry to the Catholic church that Agnes, William’s sickly wife, thinks was miraculous as well as to her own delusional Convent of Health and to the secluded quarters of their daughter Sophie. In fear of losing William, Sugar armors herself not only with facts about perfume-making through painstaking determination but with intimate knowledge of the Rackhams and goes as far as stalking them to parties and theaters. It is an enjoyable trip – intriguing and amusing and stressful all at the same time. But, of course, the novel doesn’t start with a warning for nothing.
The Crimson Petal and the White is unique in the boldness of using the subjects of sex and filth with such a smooth artistic refinement. The scenes he painted are not the usual places one reads in historical novels. Instead of massive, grand hallways where wealth reigns and ladies in fashionable clothes speak in hushed voices, he describes pathetic makeshift houses with pathetic inhabitants compared to a mansion teeming with servants but holds a young girl captive in fear of a superstitious mother. The characters are not noblemen but mere businessmen and a prostitute. The peripheral characters include a doctor, a clergyman and widows and widowers. And the picture of poverty! The novel taps the social and religious state of the era so hard one would thank the novelist cum tour guide for the cautionary introduction of this novel within a novel.
Dark, sexy, dirty and mysterious with all the comparisons and contrasts and the fearless blending of all those, The Crimson Petal and the White proves any reader initially daunted by its weight wrong. In fact, its dimensions are designed to make one scream for more. For after reading a tale of only a hundred and five pages short of a thousand, the tourist will be caught stranded in the same street where the journey started, watching Caroline disappear in the darkness amidst the sound of a carriage leaving, with the guide ending the trip with this:
“But now, it’s time to let me go.”
Currently reading:

The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey

Photo Source:
Crimson Petal and the White
The Wayward Muse