‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber tells the story of Sugar, a nineteen year old prostitute living in London in the 1870s in a brothel run by her mother. She is ‘bought’ by William Rackham, a perfumer, to be his exclusive mistress – a situation which takes her life in unexpected directions. The stories of William’s disturbed wife, Agnes, and his pious brother, Henry, are also woven in to this rich tapestry of a story teeming with detail on all aspects of Victorian life.
‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is probably the longest book I will read this year weighing in at a hefty 835 pages. However, I wouldn’t say that the book is too long in the sense that I didn’t think there were many parts that were rambling and could have been scrapped altogether. I was impressed by how well-paced the story was as I think this is quite rare in such a huge book. Unsurprisingly, the story is heavily descriptive particularly in character detail and social history but despite a number of sub-plots, the actual story is not as complicated as I thought it would be and it doesn’t meander off course too much. The characters are very well drawn and developed. Sugar, in particular, is a highly ambiguous and complex character and is refreshingly different from the usual portrayal of a Victorian-era prostitute.
If you like Sarah Waters’s Victorian novels, particularly ‘Tipping the Velvet‘, then you will probably enjoy ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ which deals with a similarly murky side of Victorian London (in pretty explicit detail it must be said). It is very atmospheric with intriguing characters and in terms of plot, it is definitely a slow-burner. However, I was surprised that the story did not build up to a big climax as I expected and instead, the conclusion felt rather abrupt after such a long journey. I did enjoy the story but after having invested so much time in the book, I did feel a little bit unsatisfied by the ending which didn’t really tie up any loose ends at all. But on the other hand, I suppose the ambiguous ending is a nice reflection of Sugar’s character as well as real life in general, so perhaps it was appropriate after all.