At the heart of this panoramic, multidimensional narrative is the compelling struggle of a young woman to lift her body and soul out of the gutter. Michel Faber leads us back to 1870s London, where Sugar, a nineteen-year-old whore in the brothel of the terrifying Mrs. Castaway, yearns for escape into a better life. Her ascent through the strata of Victorian society offers us intimacy with a host of lovable, maddening, unforgettable characters.
They begin with William Rackham, an egotistical perfume magnate whose ambition is fueled by his lust for Sugar, and whose patronage of her brings her into proximity to his extended family and milieu: his unhinged, child-like wife, Agnes; his mysteriously hidden-away daughter, Sophie; and his pious brother Henry, foiled in his devotional calling by a persistently less-than-chaste love for the Widow Fox, whose efforts on behalf of The Rescue Society lead Henry into ever-more disturbing confrontations with flesh. All this is overseen by assorted preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all stripes and persuasions.
Twenty years in its conception, research, and writing, The Crimson Petal and the White is a singular literary achievement -- a gripping, intoxicating, deeply satisfying Victorian novel written with an immediacy, compassion, and insight that give it a timeless and universal appeal.
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.
When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you're actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. Looking left and right, blinking against an icy wind, you realise you have entered an unknown street of unlit houses full of unknown people.
And yet you did not choose me blindly. Certain expectations were aroused. Let's not be coy: you were hoping I would satisfy all ...
Don’t read this huge and weighty novel expecting neat conclusions and happy endings – you won’t find either. Do read it if you love historical fiction and finely nuanced characters. Short of finding a time machine to take you there in person, this is about as close as a modern reader is going to get to the experience of what it must have been like to live in Victorian London – and unlike most Victorians who were able to experience only their own tier of society, the reader is able to explore multiple levels, from the depths of poverty to far up the ladder of society.
If you liked The Crimson Petal and The White, try these:
Set in England and France during the darkest days of World War II, Charlotte Gray, like Birdsong, depicts a complex love affair that is both shaped and thwarted by war.
Emma Donoghue digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime in a lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes, capturing the pulse of a boomtown like no other.
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