The Crimson Petal and the White
In his debut novel, 2000's Under the Skin, Michel Faber created an unsettling, often nightmarish science-fiction parable about loneliness and the meat industry. Set in rural Scotland, the novel chronicles the macabre activities of its ungainly and unearthly anti-heroine, Isserley, who picks up male hitchhikers on highland back roads, stuns them with a device in her car, and takes them back to a remote farm where she processes her victims like cattle. Even at 320 pages, Faber's crisp prose and hypnotic pacing gave this novel a breathless, terrifying intensity that everything-and-the-kitchen-sink horror writers like Stephen King consistently fail to achieve.
Faber's second novel, at 848 pages, is as hefty a tome as anything King has produced. In tone, plot, and setting, too, The Crimson Petal and the White profoundly differs from Under the Skin. A historical novel set in Victorian London, Crimson Petal draws heavily on Charles Dickens; works such as Steven Marcus' landmark 1966 study of pornography and sexuality in 19th-century England, The Other Victorians; and contemporary research into the social history and daily life of the era. Ably synthesizing volumes of facts about everything from the contents of religious pamphlets to the predilection for being spanked among the titans of empire, Faber convincingly re-creates life among both the bourgeoisie and the underclass who serves and services them.
His protagonist, Sugar, is an intelligent, well-read, and brash proto-feminist prostitute who becomes the mistress of an indolent perfume baron, William Rackham. Under Sugar's tutelage (in both the sexual and the business arts), Rackham begins to take his responsibilities seriously and becomes a wealthy, well-respected man. In true melodramatic fashion, however, success and tragedy are intimate companions. While Rackham's family, from his obsessively abstemious brother to his delusional wife, crumbles around him, Sugar faces difficult challenges and even more difficult choices than she could have imagined in her life as a high-class whore.
For its length, The Crimson Petal rarely lags. The Dickensian texture of daily life in Victorian England, embellished with frank and decidedly un-Dickensian descriptions of bodily functions and sexual acts, is lightly conveyed. Faber's unerring sense of narrative momentum makes this an enjoyable reading experience. But it is also an overly familiar one, a Dickens pastiche that adds little to our understanding of Victorian society. Compared with Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel From Hell, a genuinely visionary work set in Victorian London, Faber's massive book feels strangely weightless.