The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

21/09/02, The Times

E.M. Forster once described the novel as a “loose, baggy monster”. Michel Faber’s second novel, at 900 pages, is a tyrannosaurus rex of a monster, huge, meaty, overwhelming. It doesn’t come as a surprise that The Crimson Petal and The White is a pastiche Victorian novel, Faber’s deeply intelligent, self-conscious and slyly allusive hommage to an era which has set the parameters of any discussion of the genre.
Set in the year 1875, it tells the story of Sugar, a nineteen-year old prostitute, learned, devilishly manipulative and intelligent, who tries to escape her infernal lot by using one of her clients, William Rackham, reluctant heir to Rackham Perfumeries, as ticket to a better life. Interlaced with this tale of self-fashioning and the attempt to overcome inflexibly rigid class boundaries are other stories. There is Henry, William’s brother, racked by the desires of his body which keep him from the path to god; Mrs Emmeline Fox, vocal member of the worthy Rescue Society which goes around the streets of London rehabilitating whores; Agnes Rackham, anorexic, delusional and dangerously innocent wife of William, a lethal combination of helpless child and clinically self-obsessed victim, ignorant of the most fundamental facts of life, including the existence of her own daughter.

To say anything more about the ways in which these lives intertwine and collide would be criminal. Faber believes that the ultimate job of the novel should be to tell a story, and the story he delivers is so utterly thrilling that it closes around the neck like a tight fist. This is an unputdownable book: the narrative enters your heart like a hook and plays you like a fish; there is no choice but to give in to this most unbelievably pleasurable of narrative rides. From pointillism to broad brushstroke bravura, the prose seems to be on some benign, timed-release speed: its pace is unflagging, its onward rush irresistible.

Faber’s take on the nineteeenth-century English novel is a heady and intoxicating mixture of affection, respect, and scabrous resistance. For a pastiche set in an age when everything about the body was either denied or hidden, this is a stubbornly corporeal book, almost Rabelaisian in its embeddedness in the sheer materiality of human life. It is awash with spit, piss, shit, semen, snot, menstrual blood, sweat, vomit. Not a page goes by without eloquent reminders of the inescapibility of matter in all its forms, of the untidy and inelegant messes we are as animals.

Faber’s other great strength – and in this he proves himself to be a careful student of the Victorian novel – is his miraculous characterization. The interiority he gives his characters is vast; the characters roll into breathing life at the flick of a word, a move of a phrase. Agnes’s febrile boredom and her slow descent into madness; Sugar’s tender relationship with William and Agnes’s daughter, Sophie; the depiction of William as an overgrown child, pompous, ineffectual, at times ridiculous; all are achieved with the depth and sympathy of a true humanist.

Where the novel most convinces in its combative imitation of the Victorian novel is in its excoriatingly socio-moral heart. Faber ruthlessly strips down Victorian society to its horrifying details – the stratification, the squalor, the poverty, the hypocrisy, the emptiness of the social whirls of the upper classes, and, above all, the excruciating inequalities of gender and class. He confronts both the bugbears and the cherished fallacies of the age about women – ‘female madness’, their position as little more than a lower life-form – and directs an incandescent jet of anger at them. The rage can barely be left off the pages.
It’s a pity, then, that the abruptness of the final page should come as a slap to the reader: the story doesn’t so much end as halt in mid-track, a perverse fiat on the part of the author. Why? Is Faber leaving room open for a sequel or did he just not know how to conclude his story? But this is a minor quibble about a work of such sustained narrative panache. Make time for it.