I recently finished reading one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read. It’s not new, in fact it’s been around for ages but it was recommended to me by a friend of mine… and an excellent recommendation it turned out to be! Thanks Ags!!
The Crimson Petal and the White has claimed itself a place on my list of books that have had/will have a lasting impression on me. It is incredibly well-written, in dazzling displays of literary prowess and minute detail. It is HUGE and long but a real-page turner, making it ok that it weighed down my bag for the best part of a month and gave me a sore shoulder. And it’s the fact it is so well-written that it has deserved my claim that it is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read.
There’s this incredible persona that the narrator takes… like he/her is actually talking to you directly as the story goes on. I know that’s typically what a narrator does; tells you a story, but this is somehow more direct, more intense, like the narrator is a character in the story as well. It means that he/her gets further under your skin and transports you suddenly so you feel like you’re actually standing there in the grimy world of Victorian London’s worst neighbourhoods and the fresh, lovely, wealthy surroundings of its best. I say he/her because it’s never really confirmed either way. Some people would assume male given the author is male, while others would assume female… to me it went back and forth. The incredibly intriguing opening paragraph of the book reads like this:
‘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’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether’
… immediately launching you into the world in the Victorian era and reminding you that you are indeed a stranger who still has to learn a lot about the place you’re visiting.
I love novels set in England’s past anyway, particularly Victorian England, but even the subject matter isn’t the only reason that this book was brilliant. It is interesting and engaging the whole way through; harsh, raw and descriptive in nature, not hiding behind the euphemisms that are often found in modern-day novels set during this time, and almost always found in novels actually written during this time. You are given a vivid picture of what it was actually like to live in Victorian England – the real things that go on behind closed doors. Like what prostitutes do to ensure that the sheets are always fresh or so they don’t get pregnant, or the logistics of a household or descriptions of soap manufacture. It’s all there and it’s all very captivating.
Also, it is set in London, which is another factor I love and even more importantly is set in St. Giles where I work, and Notting Hill, where I used to live, so it’s quite interesting to read about places you know all too well in the modern world and try to imagine them as they were then.
The characters are deliciously complex and I spent the ENTIRE novel not too sure what to actually make of them. The narrator tells the story from many different perspectives, from those of each of the different characters and from his/her own. So you are left wondering if it’s their true character or the reflected projection of the way they are perceived by the other characters or indeed by the narrator in the book. The protagonist, Sugar, I still haven’t quite worked out. Is Sugar really trying to help Agnes or is she deliberately trying to plot against her? Is William really in love with Sugar or is she just a fantasy he is letting play out in reality, and does she love him despite herself or is she really just in it to better her position?
There is so much at stake for each of the characters in the book, and even if love does exist between them, the novel explores the greater societal pull – reputation – in its enduring battle with love, tradition, class systems, social etiquette, family and household rules, belief systems and the rapidly increasing changes in the world brought on by the industrial revolution.
Another reason this book is so good is that there are elements of the story that don’t ever get resolved or really ever explained fully but not in an infuriating way at all. It is like everything is happening in real time, and you are a fly on the wall. Or rather, a fly on the back of the fly that is the narrator, flying through London catching glimpses of the lives of those you’re watching, but not seeing all of it and not always being able to find out what happens. This isn’t strictly true for everything, but it happens enough to warrant this description. Even with the ending, you are left wondering what happens next, with the torturously good closing line: ‘an abrupt parting, I know, but that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?’ right in the middle of possibly the highest point of the drama within the whole book.
I might have to read a few more Michael Faber novels before I make this next statement fact, but I think I may have a new favourite author to add to my list!
It has also been made into a BBC mini-series and I’m very curious to see how they interpret the characters, the elements of the story and the storytelling itself. I hope I’m not disappointed after loving the book so much.