Victorian England. Plucky orphans getting by on the strength of their wits. Wealthy old men who just need to be taught a good lesson. Top hats and crinoline. Grinning chimney sweeps and slapdash policemen.
No. More like a brutal clash between the have and have-nots, wealthy hypocrites celebrating poverty and paying lip service to charity on holidays. Brutal oppression of women. Poor children forced into backbreaking labor. Cheap life, rich industry.
We follow Sugar, a nineteen year old woman and professional whore, forced into the sex industry at thirteen by her nihilistic mother. Sugar is determined to increase her lot in life and not spend it all on the streets, where she’s as like to succumb to disease as be strangled by a customer.
On comes William Rackham to the scene, heir to a booming perfume business. He’s Sugar’s salvation, and also one of those most hateable characters in all literature. William isn’t terrible because he drowns puppies or murders innocents. He’s not Jack the Ripper. Instead, he’s a spineless, self pitying coward, who abuses his wealth and privilege to the great detriment of everyone around him, while constantly self-justifying and also whining about everything. Watch him make excuses for himself while his whims deliver terrible consequences to those that depend on him. After traipsing around town trying to find the exact prostitute to sate his depravity, William comes upon Sugar. So entranced is he that he decides he must have her entirely for himself. That’s the plot of this enormous, dense novel.
It’s a good old fashioned epic. London is wonderfully realized, enchanting in its own grimy, bustling way. The witty, omniscient narrator is entertaining and delivers fashion lessons on the changing dress of the era, progressively more revealing and sexy to counter the more conservative societal outlook on language and politesse, and keeps it interesting. The cast is engaging and their philosophical quandaries compel. William’s brother Henry is another main character and a religious man tormented by the contrast between his faith and the London clergy versus the poverty in the streets. Faber is clearly interested in preachers in conflict, as it’s a major theme in his excellent The Book of Strange New Things too. I sometimes characterize books as “I can read them forever” or “I have to stop after a few chapters, because it’s too dense/harrowing/difficult/meandering.” Crimson Petal is clearly the former and I had long, multi-hour sittings where I did nothing but read.
Did it have to be 900 pages? Eh, not really. It’s quite good, but also extremely slow and repetitive at times. The story will seem to muck around for 50-80 pages and then suddenly accelerate and major turning points are covered in a few pages. I don’t begrudge it much, though. My bigger gripe is that the novel begins with an omniscient narrator speaking to the reader, establishing a metaphor that the book is a whore for you to use, and desirous to make you feel dirty for purchasing it and expecting a thrilling romp through Victorian London and not the filth the novel opens to. It’s great. The narrator pops in and out at times and the conceit is that the reader is following around the main characters at a safe distance. He makes jokes. But, bafflingly, the voice of the narrator almost entirely disappears in the final 35% of the book. And, partially due to that, the first three acts are superior to the last two. I was tapping my foot towards the end, ready for it to be over, but was still sad when I finally did finish and knew I was leaving these characters behind.
The majority of the characters, and almost all of the sympathetic ones are women. This book buries the axe in male privilege and the subtext implies that much of what William Rachman is capable of is not constrained to one hundred and fifty years ago, but persists today. He’s infuriating. Sugar is writing a novel about a literary facsimile of herself that lurks around London, torturing the hapless men who casually purchase women’s bodies for pocket change. The first line is “All men are the same.” The tone of the novel is often humorous but it delves seriously into the lives of its prostitute characters and examines what their life may have been, instead of using them as a set piece or for titulation, like media generally does.