The Crimson Petal and the White

By: Michel Faber
2002
Fiction
Subject Matter: Great Britain; History; Victoria, 1837-1901; Perfumes industry; London; England; Young women; Prostitutes
Rating: 4/5

 

The Crimson Petal and the White book cover

The first thing I did after finishing this book was sit back and take a long, deep breath.

I fell in love with this book from the get-go. Michel Faber has one of the most original, inviting writing styles I’ve come across in a while.

There is an unnamed narrator who introduces you to the book in Chapter One and who reappears as necessary throughout. Here are the first few sentences of the book:

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you have read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belong.

Doesn’t that just bring a smile to your face? A book with a killer first paragraph gets major kudos from me.

The book talks to you. It actually speaks to you, and not as a character. The book is sassy and helpful and impatient and hilarious, a welcome break in an otherwise dark story.

But don’t worry, it’s not all like that.

Of course – didn’t I mention this? – I’m about to leave you. Yes, sadly so. But I’ll leave you in good hands, excellent hands.

And so at some point you get to the point of this very, very long book. The Crimson Petal and the White follows, primarily, Sugar, a teenage prostitute in 1800s London. It’s not a new premise, but it’s definitely a story you’ve not heard before.

This books is not light reading. It’s a whopping 800 odd pages, stuffed full of prostitution, mental illness, grief, abuse, loneliness, dishonesty, pain, dysfunction, religion, hatred, shame, misunderstanding, frustration, and a little bit of love.

It doesn’t set about to romanticize anybody or anything. There is no clear-cut hero or right-and-wrong decisions.

Faber’s singular style of placing you right in the heads of his characters is astounding, almost shocking. One minute you’re a 19-year-old prostitute, the next a 20-something mad woman, the next a 30-something gentleman.

It’s a wild ride the narrator takes you on, filled with remarkable characters and captivating choices.

I commend this one to you, but take it in stride. Let it take you on a journey, and keep a smile and a conscience with you.

 

*****

 

If you enjoyed The Crimson Petal, here are some other suggestions:

(for more by Faber)

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Apple by Michel Faber

The Courage Consort by Michel Faber

(for more 19th century England)

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

(for more books about prostitution)

Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

 

Coming up:

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron

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