Thursday 7 June 2012

The Crimson Petal and The White

Allow me to introduce my guest blogger
Sandy Hamilton, returning to this blog after
too long an absence with a real humdinger
of a book review.

Studies of Sugar from the novel, drawn by Sandy Hamilton.

Tickle Me Pink

The Crimson Petal and The White
Michel Faber
Canongate Books 
ISBN: 1847678939

Thank you once again, Nuts4r2, for inviting me onto your blog. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings about ‘The Crimson Petal and The White’ by Michel Faber.
I came to this novel late, after having watched and enjoyed the television adaptation. Already noted as “The International Bestseller” on the front cover, it came with a bold number of glowing reviews and accolades, spanning five pages no less, within it’s own covers. Likened to Dickens, Byatt, Fowles and Bronte, amongst other canonic giants, it boasted a tip-top pedigree and assured that it would not disappoint. Ever the cynic, I felt fearful of a fall in the face of such confidence but also a little excited, just in case it lived up to its promise.

Although I would love to be different from the crowd by railing against the simpering sycophantic majority and, in my ever so ‘umble opinion, pointing out the error of their ways, I absolutely couldn’t. This book left me wiping the dribble from my chin as my mouth fell open in soppy awe. Apparently, you can judge a book by its cover!

I found The Crimson Petal And The White intriguing right from the first words as the ‘entre nous’ narrative voice speaks directly to the reader with a warning to “watch your step”. I felt that I had been noticed entering this world and my na├»ve expectations of floating along on a cloud of social niceties were immediately challenged. If I stayed, I felt I was going to be confronted with some unpalatable truths as I would be spending time in a dark and “bitterly cold” place where I would be “led astray”. A hook if I ever saw one, as who doesn’t want to gawp at something we shouldn’t be looking at?

And then, subtly, almost out of awareness, sexual language started priming me for the intimacy to come. It potently saw into my secret hope of having desires satisfied that I was “too shy to name”; it told of my “spent breath”, where the air could be “frigid”.

So with this ‘entrance’, what, exactly, was I to encounter?

As it turns out, a wonderful novel, brilliantly written, about how the political impacts the personal and how the individual fares in social structures created by the few. Faber draws a broad political and social landscape of oppression, sexism, health and mental wellbeing, the warmth and cold of relationships, the reaching or not of potential, the way we enter into the world of the other as rescuer, persecutor or victim – and publishing. He asks the reader to think about great themes, such as the damage caused to all parties by the pressures of social norms, or the impact on those without power of a society without any health or education systems. More subtly, it shows how even those who seemingly hold the power, don’t fare too well unless they know how to survive in their own milieu. Although it lays out serious ideas, the dark journey is lifted by a humour and lightness of touch in the writing that prevents it from sinking into the doldrums.

Faber delicately reveals the psychological and emotional impact of the environment and relationships on individuals and shows how we’re all intertwined. This is all played out when two apparently opposite worlds come together in the relationship between the main protagonists; Sugar, an intelligent prostitute representing the repressed poor and William Rackham, a foolish fop, representing the upper classes. Even as we judge each other, we nonetheless need each other and, like William and Sugar, each can be helped to a fuller potential by the other.

We are first led, by the narrator, to a location “on the wrong side”, a place that we’d rather not see, to which most turn a blind eye, lest they experience unbearable feelings. Faber enables us to stay, look and learn by cradling us in the security blanket of his divine language, which keeps us on the right side of despair. We later see there is no difference between the needs and wants of both sets of people, just in their ‘gets’, which is mostly governed by attitude. Women who have ‘fallen’ from society (as if there’s a place from which to topple), are looked down on from on high, yet men who have “fallen” in the war are looked up to from down low.

As the characters push out from polite society, we can get real, get dirty, just grow up and realize that the inner world of people can be dark and cold, very deep and surprising. This book asks us to delve deeper into the secret, often hidden parts of ourselves required for deeper intimacy that ultimately give us, for better or worse, a more satisfying human connection. It also reminds us that the best art can fulfill this for us, as it touches and awakens parts of ourselves that long for a sublime connection.

Faber does this with his ingenuous methods of revealing the psychological makeup of characters. We hear the cruel, derogatory, internalised parental voice of Mrs Castaway intruding into Sugar’s thoughts, for example, with her ‘oh don’t snivel’ at a time when she is in enormous pain (there was no gynaecological treatment available). A more humorous symbol of the characters’ emotional and mental health is the state of their hair. Sugar’s unmistakable golden-orange hair has a life of it’s own, and William is comically introduced by his hair which, released from under his hat, is jumping around on his head “a flip-flopping crest … like a small furry animal fallen out of the sky onto the head of a man, and determined to keep its purchase there no matter what.” William’s hair is cut shorter and shorter throughout the book as his lot becomes more serious.

Faber gets busy in this book challenging assumptions. We expect that the ‘dark and bitterly cold’ landscape is that of the poor, but actually there is comfort and support in the relationships formed between some of the characters here that does not exist within those in seemingly warmer situations. A warmth that Sugar starts to lose as she moves out of her own, into a new world.

So what makes a cold environment? Not the lack of heating that Emmeline Fox experiences as she lives alone in her house. In fact Mrs Fox is the real sexy vixen of the novel. She’s all woman and, like the cocoa she drinks which “probably” has a “secret ingredient”, underneath her straight-laced piety she’s oozing with sexual tension.

On the subject of sex, Faber does not collude with the pretence that we are coy and unaware. He both faces us at times with the raunchy truth and at others, allows us to be carried away on an ethereal higher plane as his explicit language and descriptions of sex between a prostitute and her customer are contrasted with the devoted, sensual but (almost) unconsummated relationship, between Emmeline and Henry. In our sexually repressed society, this book offers the opportunity to have an adult relationship with sex. I am no prude and found it a relief to discover that I had entered into a world where sexual behaviour, usually coyly termed as “adult” content, is treated in a grown-up way. It’s worrying to me that this subject still elicits sniggers (even on training courses for psychotherapists) and according to one of the reviews on the cover by a contemporary magazine, young women readers need “smelling salts at the ready, girls.” Do they? Why? Why can’t we accept it as the natural organismic (that’s organismic!) aspect of being human?

I found it lovely to see a male depiction of women written with such sensitivity and understanding. I really felt the frustration that Faber shows when female potential can only be reached through a man: his success is her success, his money is her money. If ever there was a challenge to the unthinking view that ‘men don’t understand women’ then look no further than the world of literature where women have been beautifully portrayed by male authors throughout the years. Unfortunately, this in itself tells the bigger story of a lack of women authors, especially in the literary canon. Men are still not being drawn to reading books written by women, and I wonder whether this is an internalised sexism whereby women themselves believe the message of ‘not good enough’. As I write, there is a news headline “women still not in the top jobs”, and, as a woman, I ask, who is really stopping us?

And talking of sensitivity, I must add that Faber constructs stunning sentences, including, I believe, the most perfect sentence I’ve ever read. Just as William hides behind a pseudonym when he secretly visits Sugar, she hides behind a monument commemorating the fallen in the Crimean War when she secretly visits him. Faber brilliantly encapsulates so much within the sentence: “She peeps from behind the plinth, her cheek brushing against the names of young men who are no longer alive, subtle absences in the smoothness of the marble”.

So I leave this review, not with my ‘ever so ‘umble opinion’ but humbled in the presence of such a masterful author who truly has the gift of enhancing the life of his readers. Thank you Michel, if I may, for a poignant and touching encounter. It most certainly lived up to the promise and I’ve had a very exciting ride with you ;-).

Follow Sandy Hamilton on Twitter here.


  1. Thanks for this review! Great characterizations, and as a fellow avid reader, I too am happy to get a book that's as good as it purports to be.

  2. Hi Bucko, thank you very much for your comment. Its such a rare treat methinks to read a great book. If you get round to this one, I hope you enjoy. Sandy

  3. Wow Sandy, that was a truly beautiful review! I was unfamiliar with this book but from your thoughtful response to it I feel I must seek it out. It sounds wonderfully written and emotionally poignant, and I appreciate that though the author is male he is able to portray his women characters with sensitivity and realism. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention!

  4. Hi Alex, thanks a lot for your comment, I'm touched. I know that you're keen on the portrayal of women as I've seen and enjoyed the 'ladies' section on your blog so I'd be interested to hear what you think if you do read the book. Sandy