Book Review: The Crimson Petal
and the White
by Michel Faber
novel set in Victorian London: the social ascension of a young, talented
prostitute who is determined to leave her profession.
By Laurence Grenier
YORK, 13 January 2003
Subject: a curious
idea for a contemporary novel.
Length: more than 800 pages
(large print), never boring, so that one is not even tempted to skip
Style: modern, light and sophisticated, very
Success: great in America, among both critics and
What do we retain? No revelations or truths
accessible only through literature, but distraction, discovery of an
earlier world; sympathy for various characters, good erotic scenes,
understanding of the period, feeling that one has lived at that time
When I asked my
ten-year-old son to explain to me, if possible, why he loved Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, he answered, after some
reflection, "it's like a film" (not a scenario;
the film of the novel,
a few years later, was very disappointing!).
Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White is much the
same: better than a good film!
From the start, the author
uses a particular stylistic effect, addressing the reader, making him
a direct witness of what is going to happen: far from irritating us,
this artifice gives one the impression of holding a camera, a little
like cinéma-vérité. It also gives us the feeling,
early on in the plot, of making the reader a voyeur who will never be
disappointed in the entertainment!
The story: William
Rackham is the heir to a big cosmetic firm in which he is not
interested, thereby disappointing his father who cuts back on his
allowance in the hopes that he will become more amenable to taking
over the family business. He falls sway to the charms of a 19-year-old
prostitute named Sugar, an expert in love (she never says "no"),
who is the secret author of a book containing all her fantasies of
revenge against the male sex. Despite her professional qualities,
Sugar, who was forced into prostitution by her mother from the time
she was 13, dreams of getting out and becoming a respectable woman.
William is married to Agnes, a frail aristocrat who is almost mad and
for whom he nonetheless has some feelings of tenderness; William
nonetheless installs Sugar in the household and makes her his business
advisor as well as governess to his daughter Sophie who has been
hitherto neglected. Related in such bald terms, you will undoubtedly
think of Jane Eyre: forget about all that, because that's
where all resemblance ends! Michel Faber is decidedly of the 21st
century, and his way of regarding the past is entirely modern, without
being anachronistic: a veritable exploit. The novel, told in an
unrelenting rhythm, takes us from the lowest depths of London to the
elegant residences of Notting Hill, with a detour through the world of
the perfume industry. You think of Zola's Nana as you feel the
buzzing of the metropolis at its industrial and industrious height.
Secondary characters are described with great truth:
William's brother Henry, a man of the cloth who is sexually repressed,
secretly loved by Mrs. Fox, a woman devoted to the cause of the
prostitutes who crowd London's sidewalks; servants who serve and make
use of their masters; unworthy mothers; battered children, women
exploited by men who are themselves victims of a twisted society. In a
word, everything one more or less knows about a world that has
disappeared, but still close enough so that we can easily picture it.
intelligent ending, plausible and nonethess surprising: everything is
there so that Michel Faber's novel will lead you into the whirlwind
his heroine traverses with great humanity. And you will be sorry to
have left after a long journey that has seemed too short.
Crimson Petal and the White
by Michel Faber
Harcourt, New York (16 September 2002)
Laurence Grenier is a French
writer who lives in the United States. She is the author of Histoires
de ma Mère (Éditions Bien-dire).