Crimson Petal and the White
by Michel Faber
Category: Fiction / General
0 pages; ISBN: 1841954314
Rating: 10/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Melinda Crosby
Sugar is a prostitute in Victorian London who believes she's found her way out of her sordid life when she meets William Rackham, the heir to a successful perfumery business.
The book is instantly gripping, starting off with a unique first-person narrative that makes the reader feel they are standing in the midsts of London in the mid-1800s watching life unravel. Although this narrative fades out after a while, the book keeps the reader captive until the last page through its flawed, but sympathetic, main characters and strong sub-plots.
Sugar, William and his wife Agnes, are the main characters throughout the book. Agnes is a sad creature, suffering unknowingly from a brain tumour, terrified by menstruation (which no one has ever explained to her, thus her fear she is bleeding to death each time it occurs), obsessed with finding comfort in religion and unable to acknowledge that she is a mother to six-year old daughter Sophie, who is kept hidden from her.
The book follows Sugar's journey from prostitute to mistress to governess, becoming part of the Rackham household and absorbing every detail of Agnes's life, without actually being allowed to speak to her.
Secondary characters include William's older brother Henry, torn between his devotion to God and his sexual desires; Emmeline Fox, Henry's friend and the object of his desires and William's two friends, Bodley and Ashwell who provide a sort of comic relief.
Crimson Petal and the White immerses the reader less in Victorian every day life, and more in the secluded lives of the main characters on whose lives the outside world seems not to impact upon on a regular basis. So isolated are the three characters - and Sophie - that the reader begins to feel imprisoned with them, with the weight of the same four walls closing in.
This is a well-paced, often gripping book. The author's descriptions of the less savoury side of Victorian life and its prostitutes are vivid and provide the reader with a myriad of pictures, sights and smells to accompany the text. The only disappoint will be for readers who prefer all the loose ends neatly tied up at the end.