The Crimson Petal and the White Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
NOW A MAJOR BBC DRAMA starring Romola Garai, Chris O'Dowd, Gillian Anderson, Richard E. Grant, Shirley Henderson, and Mark Gatiss.
'Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them....' So begins this irresistible voyage into the dark side of Victorian London. Amongst an unforgettable cast of low-lifes, physicians, businessmen, and prostitutes, meet our heroine Sugar, a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can. Be prepared for a mesmerising tale of passion, intrigue, ambition, and revenge.
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|Listening Length||41 hours and 32 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com.au Release Date||18 May 2011|
|Best Sellers Rank||
20,674 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals)
1,326 in Historical Fiction (Audible Books & Originals)
5,852 in Historical Fiction (Books)
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Top reviews from Australia
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The constraints of drama for the screen didn't apply here, so the author was able to give the reader greater depth and insight to the characters and their interior worlds.
The parlous state of women in Victorian London was one of the great narrative sweeps of this wonderful novel, and the hideous conditions of poverty and inequality that drove women into prostution.
The author has great affection for his female characters- many, including the central character, Sugar, were doomed from the start.
Despite - or perhaps because of-the double standards of morality that pervaded society, the women characters generally rise above their awful plight and show attributes of courage, kindness and perseverance in the face of adversity: men in general, and the upper classes do not fare as well at the author's hands.
A tour de force, well worth the read.
There are so many different facets that make up a story, and in THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, brilliance can be observed in every facet, from the narrative voice and setting of the scenes to the characters and themes that comprise the beating heart of the book. Its present-tense narration is just one means by which this book dominates the reader's mind and senses. The narrator is virtually a discrete character unto himself, a very chummy busybody. I have met some omniscient narrators in my time, but never one as intrusive as this. Luckily, he is intrusive in a playful, friendly, helpful way, steering the reader with a sure hand to the meatiest parts of the world of the story. The narrator has a very dry, ironic sense of humor and a truly razor-sharp, biting wit that is rarely seen nowadays and is a delicious, wicked pleasure to read. His impish turn of phrase sweeps both mischievously and elegantly through the pages of the book. The prose style can perhaps best be described as "spry," flitting nimbly back and forth between different parts of a scene or idea, with many short, sharp, witty asides.
Some books are described as "atmospheric." I realize now that I never knew what the word meant until I read this book. The opening paragraphs plunge you headfirst into the dingy Victorian squalor of Church Lane, and having thus dragged you into its world, the book never lets you escape again. We are led down "a street where people go to sleep not at a specific hour but when the gin takes effect, or when exhaustion will permit no further violence" and are induced to notice that: "The roofs are a crazy jumble, the upper windows cracked and black as the brickwork, and the sky above seems more solid than air, a vaulted ceiling like the glass roof of a factory or a railway station: once upon a time bright and transparent, now overcast with filth." Setting a scene perfectly seems to be another of the author's particular talents. Whether the scene be ridiculous or fraught, the balance between "showing" and "telling" is always just right - and the most telling details are always artfully included.
The characterization in the book is superb, from the main characters down to the most lowly. Faber appears to have an instinctive feeling for the inherent selfishness of the human race, which he manifests uniquely in every character. Some are funny, some are pathetic, some are eccentric, some are calculating, some are innocent - but all are individuals. And Sugar is the most enigmatic of them all. Joining her onstage is William Rackham, the dandy heir to Rackham Perfumeries and frequenter of brothels, who falls under Sugar's spell and decides to rescue her from the brothel owned and run by her mother, Mrs. Castaway, and set her up in style as his exclusive mistress. William's wife, Agnes, a selfish and fragile woman who is rapidly succumbing to madness, is also part of the cast of our little drama, as is William's brother, Henry, a good and godly man who is constantly wrestling, to his mortification, with his own sexual urges, and Emmeline Fox, Henry's friend and doyen of the Rescue Society, which attempts to save "fallen women" from their lives of depravity and find them good, honest - if much less well paid - work.
All of the main characters in this book spend an inordinate amount of time in the oh-so-human pursuit of comparing themselves unfavorably with others (usually each other). One of the more unusual and arresting notions that this story pokes and prods at is the idea that a person only exists inasmuch as they are seen by others to exist. Do we create our own personas or are we created by others? This book has much to say about the absurdity of our belief that we can ever truly know another person - and that we can ever allow another person to know us utterly. Having said that, and despite how patronizing it is for a woman to comment on how well a male author has been able to capture the complex, sometimes contradictory psychology of female characters, in this case, it is so striking that it just cannot be left unsaid: Michel Faber really knows how to write a woman.
The core theme of this book is female sexuality and its relation to practical morality. This theme is examined exhaustively from every possible angle by the book's three leading ladies - Sugar, the intelligent and ambitious whore; Emmeline Fox, the pious but practical redeemer of fallen women; and Agnes Rackham, the impossibly naive and prudish gentlewoman driven mad by a sexual revulsion that seems almost straight out of a Freudian textbook. Then enters the sweet, completely malleable little girl, Sophie Rackham, and the question immediately arises: which attitude and which path will she take to lead her to her own womanhood? The book overall represents a collision between male domination and female subversion of this hegemony. This collision is brought to life in several particular episodes - episodes that are as slyly taunting as they are downright shocking. Structuralist and feminist tropes of the active, rational, logical, dominant man and the passive, irrational, emotional, submissive woman are not merely challenged but are torn to shreds with savage, even maniacal, glee. This book is surprising and unique in almost every way possible. The feminist literary concept of "the pit or the pedestal" (the tendency for female characters to be either irredeemably wicked wantons destined for hell or, conversely, paragons of impossible, unimpeachable virtue, with no realistic middle ground) is played with very artfully, as we hear that Sugar is a prostitute who will do ANYTHING, including things that her colleagues shy away from, yet William Rackham idolizes her as the most perfect woman ever created.
THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE deals with lust in all its many and varied manifestations, and displays the entire spectrum of illness it causes, whether from excessive suppression or excessive expression of carnal desire. There is a very specific kind of madness that is inextricably linked to each position along the spectrum, as demonstrated by each of the book's main characters. Madness in varying forms is ever-present in the story, and in keeping with its Victorian setting, the madness is most decidedly gendered - the madness of lust in the male balanced by the madness of sexual revulsion in the female.
Sugar is a woman who is true to one thing only: her ideal of sisterhood, forged by common experience with all women, whether high or low - the benighted experience of subjugation to the whims and humors of the loathed common enemy, man. Told very early in life by Mrs. Castaway that "'Men are not to ANYONE's taste, dear. Still, they rule the world and we must all fall on our knees before them, hmm?'", Sugar plays men like fish on a line, in a cynical undertaking that is much more sinister than a mere game - her only desire is revenge for the numberless outrages perpetrated against her sex. And she has the smarts to exact a revenge in which its victim never sees it coming or knows whence it came. "A pity, really, that Sugar's brain was not born into a man's head, and instead squirms, constricted and crammed, in the dainty skull of a girl." One of the ways in which she expresses her impotent rage is by writing a manuscript for a novel that details men being tortured for her own vicious satisfaction. This manuscript begins by saying, cynically: "If there is one thing I have learned in my time on this Earth, it is this. All men are the same." Sugar's inability to understand what there could possibly be about a man that could induce a woman to freely and voluntarily love him for his own sake is strangely moving. I have said that THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE is surprising in every way, and this is never more evident than in the semi-role reversal that suggests that it may be possible for the mistress to support and raise up the wife.
The inconvenient and apparently hateful wife is not allowed to be just swept under the carpet in this story; rather, the unfolding of Agnes's "affliction" is very pointedly juxtaposed every step of the way with the story of William and Sugar, so that the reader may never forget her apparent madness and may never cease to wonder what drove her to it. "One who sups with the Devil must use a long spoon; Agnes Rackham's spoon, in supping with her husband, is the length of an oar." For me, Agnes is the most fascinating and complex character of all - she can be self-obsessed, snobbish, spiteful, yet in her childlike madness she is immeasurably pitiable, and it often drives her to speak the most searing truths. For example: "... she knows she must control herself and be demure, she must act as though the world is just the same today as it was yesterday, for her husband is a man and if there's one thing men despise it's happiness in its raw state." William unwittingly feeds and supports Agnes's madness in a myriad of ways. The obsessions and delusions that baffle and distress him the most have their foundations in him. In this book, the distance between men and women is at the same time both infinitesimal and as wide as the ocean - and the cause of illnesses of many kinds.
Agnes resembles Shakespeare's Ophelia in more ways than one, and THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE is subtly but significantly meta-textual, particularly in reference to the works of Shakespeare. The madam named "Mrs. Castaway" also lends the book a positively Dickensian feel, both in her squalid, heartless eccentricity and in her very name itself. But above all, both Sugar and Agnes are writers, although Agnes's prim, bewildered journals are very different from Sugar's vicious, vengeful manuscript - or are they? Both vessels of self-expression have at their heart a fury and a bewilderment at their author's oppression by men. "The difference between men and women is nowhere plainer, thinks Agnes, than in the novels they write. The men always pretend they are making everything up, that all the persons in the story are mere puppets of their imagination, when Agnes knows that the novelist has invented nothing. He has merely patchworked many truths together, collecting accounts from newspapers, consulting real soldiers or fruit-sellers or convicts or dying little girls - whatever his story may require. The lady novelists are far more honest: Dear Reader, they say, this is what happened to ME."
As I made my way through this book, it gradually dawned on me that it was quite unlike any other book I had ever read, which really is saying a lot. And thus, it was only fitting that it should have the most unusual and ambiguous ending of any book I've ever read - which is just the way I like it. It is also certainly one of the most vehemently and invigoratingly feminist books I've read in a long time. Thus, it is only fair that I cede the last word to Mrs. Castaway: "'Wicked is what we can't help being ... The word was invented to describe us. Men love to wallow in sin; we are the sin they wallow in.'"
Top reviews from other countries
I don't know how to classify this story. When I first started reading it again, I kept thinking how very different it was from Faber's other book, Under the Skin. But the more I read, the more the similarities struck me. Both of the main female protagonists are repressed, abused by men, forced to represent themselves to the world in a way that distorted their 'real' selves. They survived in a man's world only on men's terms, giving the impression that they were happy to do so, but inside - my goodness, inside the bile and the bitterness and the resentment that seethed. Not that either of these women were perfect. Far, very far from it. Sugar is a product of her horrible upbringing. She's grasping and she's cold. She has no idea how to express or feel affection. She is out to get what she can get. At first. It's not love for her protector that saves her though (thankfully) but 'love' of the two women who come into her life - Agnes and Sophie. Sugar 'saves' them in her own unique way. We assume. Of course we'll never know, because of that controversial ending. And by the end of the book, Sugar has also - not quite saved, but started to become herself. To cast off the disguise she's been forced to wear as a prostitute in various forms, and to define herself.
Not sure if this makes any sense. I don't want to give anything of the book away - lucky you, if you haven't read it. It's also funny, and it's sad, and it makes you so angry, and it is a bit disgusting. It's compelling, beautifully written, and it's most importantly, a very, very satisfying story. Did I say I loved it? Fab!
Faber is a writer of prodigious gifts; a master stylist and a natural storyteller, for sure, but he has that extra that is much rarer; a writer of luminous humanity. His apprehension of the human condition, and his expression of it through the many vivid characters in this book, is plainly evident. Reading Faber is a delicious and delirious joy-ride - here the dark underbelly of Victorian London is exposed in a manner of which, I am sure, Dickens himself would have approved. It would be tempting, on the basis of this book, to regard Faber as a natural successor to Dickens, except that his other books show that he has other enormous guns in his arsenal. I would say that he was "one to watch", were it not for his announcement that he would write no more novels.