Prostitutes are people too – The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

June 26, 2011 at 3:44 am Leave a comment

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Published in 2002

Read this book. Yes, it is long.Yes, it is bawdy and explicit and really just gross in parts but still it is worth it.

The novel is set in Victorian England – this is important because it allows the author to use the setting as a character itself, set hard against the women that the Victoria Era so repressed and ill-defined.   I will say I do expect an apology from the author for his technique in the first couple of chapters.  His beginning “watch your step. Keep your wits about you, you will need them” is just the start of Faber’s silly attempts at drawing you in as a reader in this “let me show you London, visitor” or “come hither gentle reader” kind of annoying way.  It is off-putting and I don’t understand it. But thankfully, it ends.  Either Faber got drunk and forgot how he started the novel OR his editors said “stop this, we won’t pay you to rewrite these pages, but carry on with the story about the hookers.”

The story itself is long so I will limit my description to the largest facet of the book.  Sugar, who has been a prostitute since she was very young, is arguably the main character. Arguably because in 800+ pages there are a lot of characters.  Sugar is well read, well spoken, will do anything in bed for the customer, and after her great customer service is completed she is penning a novel about how she kills these customers in a fantasy-revenge tale.  She also has severely bad and flaking skin, which makes her an odd choice for all of her customers, needless to say she is good at her job.  Fairly early in the book (so meaning pp. 300) Sugar  is taken in by William Rackham and becomes a kept woman.  She helps William become a successful business man, while he deals with his wife Agnes – whose mind is unraveling.  So Sugar becomes this business advisor who then has to turn on his whim and become the whore again.

But here in lies the rub, the women in William’s life actually do need more than he can give or withhold or how his limited mind can define them – sorry William.  Agnes does not understand her body, why she bleeds monthly (she believes she is dying), or that she has birthed a child with William.  Agnes is so locked in childhood ignorance that she cannot reconcile with her adult body.  You find out early in the novel from the narrator that unbeknownst to anyone Agnes has a brain tumor as well.  But her regular visits from the doctor who probes and molests her do, as only Victorian medicine can, indicate that her womb is traveling around in her body and must be stopped with opiates – obviously, I mean how else do you deal with traveling organs if not to slow them down with heavy sedation?  So on one hand, the author has given us Sugar who was forced to become a prostitute by her own mother and on the other hand we have Agnes who knows nothing about her sexuality and this has played a large hand in her loose grasp on reality.  And the importance of balance becomes so evident. Because who is more captive to her circumstances? The educated whore or the ignorant housewife?  Believe me, I simplify. William’s poor daughter also plays into this dichotmy but to say more would spoil the novel.

Throughout the novel, Faber uses men as tools, oppressors or successful imbeciles.  But while they are caricatures of men in life, they do serve to make this novel meaningful for the female characters.  It seems that in the end while all of the women characters have been bending and turning and smiling for salvation from the men in their lives ultimately they save themselves and each other.  And frankly, coming from a male author I like that. I like that a lot.

By the way, BBC liked the novel as well and made it into a miniseries calling it a tale of “love, lust, desire and revenge.” Sexy, huh?


Entry filed under: June 2011 reads. Tags: , , , .

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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