The Crimson Petal and the White

A couple years ago, I had the good fortune of being able to attend BookExpo America, where free advance copies of the hottest fall releases are offered to anyone who passes by a given publisher’s booth. Of the many surprises I picked up on that trip (including Umberto Eco’s Baudolino), the best by far was Michel Faber’s sublime The Crimson Petal and the White, which is now available in paperback.

Here’s Ann Patty’s (Executive Editor at Harcourt) note on the first page of the advance reading copy:

Dear Reader,

You hold in your hands the first great nineteenth-century novel of the twenty-first century. In my twenty-five years as an editor, this may be the most magnificent, courageous novel I have ever published. Magnificent because it can only be called a great novel, a tour de force, a novel that truly stands beside the Victorian classics. Courageous because it not only flies in the face of what most male authors of impeccable literary credentials would risk, but also because of the way it came to be written. Michel vigorously researched the novel soon after he graduated college as a scholar of nineteenth-century culture and literature; he wanted to write a novel as carefully constructed as Eliot’s Middlemarch. The original manuscript took him six years to hand write, in the small neat script of an obsessive who couldn’t afford to hire a typist. Never thinking he might find a readership, he filed it away in a drawer. Years and life went on. Yet the novel continued to compel him–in the ensuing fifteen years he overhauled and rewrote it three more times. His characters and perspective deepened and matured as he did, his guiding muse moving, as he did, from alienation and nihilism to love and hope.

If you are familiar with Michel Faber’s highly praised first novel, Under the Skin, or his brilliant story collection Some Rain Must Fall, this novel will come as a further astonishment, since nothing (save the blazing talent) in those wonderfully strange and original first books could possibly have predicted The Crimson Petal and the White. When you begin to read it, you may regret that it is not even longer. It is a book to curl up with and live in for awhile. And life here is deeply enthralling, rich, provocative, and absolutely real.

This praise is a tall order for a book to live up to, but The Crimson Petal and the White does not disappoint. It sucks you in with a unique narrative voice, which speaks directly to an assumed twenty-first-century reader from the anachronistic perspective of a nineteenth-century character. If you’re like me, you look for a compelling first paragraph to make you commit to a book, and this one has a first paragraph that sinks the hook into you deeply (and it never lets go):

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

From that point on, I couldn’t put the book down, and, as Ann Patty indicated, when the book ended on page 833 I actually wished that it were longer. You really must read this book. Once you curl up with it and live in it awhile, you won’t want to come back.

A final note: don’t be intimidated by the comparison with Middlemarch, which I actually was never able to finish (in fact, my difficulty with Middlemarch was the reason I switched majors from English to Philosophy, since The Later English Novel was offered at the same time as Logic, a requirement, offered only every other year, for the Philosophy major). Though The Crimson Petal and the White is perhaps as “carefully constructed” as Middlemarch, the former will never be confused as a genuine nineteenth-century novel (and it definitely will not be confused with Middlemarch). Though it has nineteenth-century themes and a nineteenth-century setting, the book’s twenty-first-century sensibilities (and distinctly twenty-first-century perspective on the nineteenth century) make it one of the best works of contemporary literature in recent years.