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Of Petals Neither Crimson Nor White April 8, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Book Reviews.

The Crimson Petal and the White
Michel Faber
First published in September 2002

“It smells . . . it smells of people trying terribly hard to be happy, without the slightest success.”

The narrator tells in an episode of Pushing Daisies, “Sometimes a crime of passion is not realizing the passion in time.”

In Michel Faber’s ambitious The Crimson Petal and the White, there are too many passions to speak of—fated passion, aborted passion, hateful passion, useless passion, friendly passion, boundless passion, dead passion, passion that flails everywhere, gets thrown everywhere, passion returned, ignored, withered, admitted—and in more than 800-blissful-pages, they are born and fired in the glaze of a narrative set in Victorian era, in Faber’s deft hands.

The novel tells the story of Sugar, a courtesan with extraordinary abilities, who finds her way in the hands (and cockstand) of William Rackham, an heir of a huge perfume business. William is immensely dissatisfied with his life when he meets her: his dream of being a writer is far from hopeful, his wife is slowly becoming estranged to him, and the stress of taking over the family business, which his older brother Henry is not too keen on having, is beginning to rile his wits. What he needs is diversion; so he finds a woman to fulfill him, to be exact: a cunt to satisfy him. Too satisfying, in fact, that he buys Sugar off the whorehouse. What follows is a slow-burning series of companionship—meetings introduced by a narrator who appears engagingly in the beginning only to appear again, importantly and abruptly, in the end—and encounters with bright and bland characters around Sugar’s improving life and William’s deteriorating family, as his business, on the contrary, is booming as one of England’s famous brands.

It is Faber’s prose that makes the prospect of carrying a tome on daily travels such a willful idea, so willful, in fact, that a heavy bag without it seems uncomfortable. Faber doesn’t seem daunted by the actuality of his setting: his details are luscious, his description like a scent that never goes away, his characters compelling in their outright madness. That “run at writing the perfect sentence” that critics are so fond of using to describe his writing has never been more apparent than here. The graceful sound of phrases, the ever-precise choice of words, the breathtaking quality of them when put together, not to mention the simplicity of punctuation that goes in between, makes The Crimson Petal and the White an exhilarating read. Faber strips the words in their barest, revealing a quality that a mere drop of ink is filled with life, or a flake of Sugar’s lips falling is something that completes her character.

But the catch is this: what Dickens is so coy about in describing Victorian living Faber is so abundant in giving. Faber is liberal in his language—reading “cunt”, “cockstand”, and “fuck” is as casual as mentioning “chair”, “door”, and “bed”—knowing how effective their explicitness is. He uses them humorously, tastefully, and salaciously. Unlike some novels of similar setting, The Crimson Petal and the White is not bombarded by textbook details, textures that only reveal the weakness of the writer, descriptions that will catch him red-handed. Faber’s research flows well like fresh ink to paper—his depiction is never condescending, and his observations always a delight to read. The part when Sugar, William, and his daughter visit a photographer’s studio, for instance, not only brings forth an interesting plot point but also provides an absorbing look on the rudiments of photography, the trends of its time, and the trade of the photographers. Too bad the book did not live to see the beginnings of cinema—or Sugar’s “grim murders” will find a lot of producers!

Sometimes Faber begins a chapter suprisingly—suspensefully—that the reader becomes uncertain which character he is talking about, guessing only after a turn of the page. During those moments he is clearly aiming to mess with one’s imagination, challenging one’s reasoning of who might possibly be the character in question, based on their previous actions. Faber, however, as the intelligent jerk, offers no surety.

Like a breath of fresh air, his words are lovely to reread. They smack of freshness even in multiple readings, the nuances still intact. Consider the urgent clarity of this passage (and the humor that comes along with it):

She stands poised at the top of the staircase. The stairs are quite still, although the walls and ceiling continue to revolve slowly. An optical illusion. The light is dim this morning, and the traces of Agnes’s blood wholly invisible. How many steps has this staircase? Many, many. The receiving hall is far, far below. Sugar stands poised. Her hands are laid one over the other, cradling the curve of her belly. She forces herself to remove them. The house breathes in and out. It wants to help her; it knows the trouble she’s in; it knows what’s best for her. She steps forward, then notices she’s cradling her belly again. She spreads her arms wide, like wings, and the blood in her head pumps so hard that gas-lights pulse in sympathy. She closes her eyes, and lets herself fall. (p. 748, Chapter 32)

Of course, reading someone falling down the stairs isn’t funny, but the intricate description makes it feel like deserved, especially if that someone is Sugar who plans to kill not herself but her baby, in the very home of the baby’s father.

Criticisms come and go, read and absorbed, but by far the biggest blow of disapproval is the ending. Truth be told, it is something partially brought about by the book’s length (or weight)—”partially” a bit of a euphemism. To be confronted with such end, with the lack of closure most looked forward to, is terrible, and the product of which is an angry aftertaste, despising the book. While that response is completely understandable—surely, who doesn’t want to have one’s feelings resolved?—it is also worthy to consider where Faber is coming from, his defense briefly stated in the last chapter of the book, the shortest yet the most critical of all its parts.

Nasty is after luring the reader into London’s squalid streets and mad mansions—the reader even enjoying the stay—the writer leaves and say that there is an end to everything. Faber knows that. Faber knows the heavy disappointment he is reeling. He need not be told that all is well that ends well. He intends that hanging feeling, of telling the reader not to ask for more than what he can only offer, which doesn’t mean what he offers is less. In every book, the reader has to let the writer go. Apparently, Faber doesn’t write to please; he writes to record experiences, to share them as movingly as possible, to relive the time that is no longer there, and to escape when the reader relies so much on him. To take him nearly twenty years to finish The Crimson Petal and the White makes more than enough statement to his regard for beau ideal—his conditions for finality—and that in itself is far from regrettable.



1. pat - April 12, 2010

My heart skipped a beat when I saw that cover here. I thought somebody made this into a movie already! Hehe. I find the ending unsatisfying too.

2. Richard Bolisay - April 13, 2010

Hello Pat, a movie is said to come out, Kirsten Dunst playing Sugar, Curtis Hanson directing. Ashley and Bodwell should really be funny in the movie, or else!

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