Books of the year

My favourite books of 2013

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when I sit down, look back over everything I’ve read in the past 12 months and draw up a list of my Top 10 reads.

After much umming and aching, these are the books I’ve selected.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the book’s title to see my review in full.

 

 

The-Orenda
The Orenda
by Joseph Boyden (2013)
Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

Apple-Tree-Yard

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (2013)
Set in modern day London, this is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Under-the-skin
Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)
Under the Skin swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments along the way. It is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

Eventide
Eventide by Kent Haruf (2005)
Eventide is the second book in a loose trilogy of novels set in Holt, Colorado. There is nothing sentimental or saccharine in the understated, almost flat, narrative. But somehow, in its storytelling, in its evocation of place and spirit, in the characters’ raw and truthful actions, you get so caught up in everyone’s lives that you cannot help but feel deeply moved.

of-human-bondage
Of Human Bondage
by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)
I loved this book so much, that I struggled to write a review that would do it justice, so this is the only novel on the list that isn’t reviewed on the blogIt follows the life and times of Philip Carey, an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It is at times a horrifying and heartbreaking  read, because Philip is a true loner and constantly struggles to find his place in the world. He is not entirely a likable character — indeed his relationship with Mildred, a waitress, borders on masochistic obsession — but I found his story a completely compelling one.

A-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is about a young woman’s relationship with her older brother, who suffers a brain tumour in childhood that later returns when he is a young man. Spanning roughly 20 years and set largely in an isolated farming community in the west of Ireland, it is highly original, bold, confronting — and Joycean.

Tivington-nott

The Tivington Nott by Alex Miller (1989)
The Tivington Nott is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders in 1952 and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

Tampa

Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)
Tampa tells the story of a female teacher who preys on teenage boys. It one of the most outrageous books I’ve ever read. It’s confronting, disturbing and, well, icky, but the voice of the narrator, which is wondrous in its sheer bravado, wickedness, narcissism and wit, is utterly compelling.

Wonder

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
Wonder tells the tale of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a serious facial deformity. He has been home-educated, but now his parents think it is time he attended a mainstream school. The book chronicles his efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at Beecher Prep. It is a book with universal appeal, one that genuinely warms the heart and brings tears to the eyes.

The-mussel-feast

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (2013)
The Mussel Feast is a tale about a woman and her two teenage children sitting around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the story is also a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

1001 books, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, literary fiction, Michel Faber, Publisher, science fiction, Scotland, Setting

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber

Under-the-skin

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 305 pages; 2000.

This may possibly be the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. That’s because writing about Michel Faber’s Under the Skin without giving away crucial plot spoilers is nigh on impossible.

This is a novel that is cloaked in secrecy — I’ve yet to come across a review online that gives away the bizarre content or the dramatic ending — and I’m not about to become the first to give it all away. Let me just say that it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

An unconventional lead character

First, let’s meet the main character, Isserley, who is “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland in her battered red Toyota Corolla and often picks up hitchhikers along the way — well, actually, she seeks them out, but more on that later. This is how one man she picks up describes her:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny — like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. […] The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows — no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. […] Her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

So, now that we know that Isserley looks unconventional, I can tell you about her unconventional job — which is to cruise the main roads of Scotland looking for hitchhikers who are “hunks on legs”. She wants big men, specifically men with muscles, and when she lures them into her car she can’t help “savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked”.

What happens to these men once they’ve been “caught” — or lured by Isserley’s big bosoms, more accurately — is the crux of the novel. And on that score I’m keeping completely schtum. Sorry.

An “issues” novel

As much as I’m loathe to describe Under the Skin as an “issues” novel, it does contain many ethical, moral and political matters that may well force you to rethink your views on everything from Nature to meat consumption, sexual identity to the notion of mercy. How we view the outsider and our attempts to conform and make sense of the world are also key elements — and to what degree do we judge people by appearance and not substance or character.

While the prose style is not particularly elegant or lyrical,  Faber is very good at describing the beauty of the landscape and the rural sights that Isserley sees while she is on the road.

A luminous moat of rainwater, a swarm of gulls following a seeder around a loamy field, a glimpse of rain two or three mountains away, even a lone oystercatcher flying overhead: any of these could make Isserley half forget what she was on the road for.

And you really get a sense of Isserley’s pain and hardship, and the sacrifices she has made to be successful in her job. She’s a wonderful character — feisty, strong, opinionated and human — and despite her dubious occupation, it’s hard not to feel empathy for her.

While the story swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments, Faber seems to have one hand firmly on the tiller: nothing is overplayed or gratuitous or even fully explained. He takes you on a ride as exciting as Isserley’s adventures in her beat up old car and somehow makes you think about the world in a completely different way.

Under the Skin — which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000 is definitely one of the most strange and original novels I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking stories I’ve come across in years — and with all the books I devour, that’s really saying something…

Under the Skin is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

10 books, Book lists

10 books where location is key

10-booksI’m one of those readers who loves her books to be peopled with strong characters. They don’t necessarily have to be believable (some of the best characters are too eccentric or kooky to be real), but they do need to be sharply drawn and three-dimensional. No cardboard cut-outs in my novels, please.

But I also love reading fiction in which the setting is just as important as any character. My location soft spots are New York, Venice, Ireland and Australia, probably because they represent special places in my heart, but it doesn’t really matter where stories are set, just as long as the sense of place is detailed and distinct.

Here’s my top 10 novels where the location is key (arranged in alphabetical order by book title) — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

CrimsonPetalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Once described as the book that Charles Dickens was too afraid to write, The Crimson Petal and the White depicts the rise and fall of a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian-era London. As one would expect from a story about the sordid world of an 1870s “working woman”, it is lewd and bawdy, and the language can, at times, be crude. But the highlight of this 800-page epic is the way in which Faber brings the city to life. The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air. The novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope – or want – to visit.

EightMonths Eight Months on Ghazza Street by Hilary Mantel

Set in the secret, repressive world of Saudi Arabia, this novel won’t exactly have you planning a trip to Jeddah any time soon, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a culture so different from our own. Based on Mantel’s first-hand experience of living in the kingdom, it has a real ring of authenticity to it. She depicts a world that is both restrictive and claustrophobic, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything and the rights of women do not exist. British expat Frances Shore, a cartographer forbidden to work because of her gender, finds herself becoming increasingly paranoid as she lives her new life virtually under “house arrest”. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, she begins to hear unexplained noises – a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around – and becomes convinced that something illegal is going on. But no one, including her husband, believes her. A psychological thriller of the finest order, this is the kind of story that really gets under the skin.

Forever Forever by Pete Hamill

New York must be one of the most popular cities to depict in fiction, but few have depicted it in the same way as Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable, Forever spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.

Offshore Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This Booker Prize-winning novel is set among a houseboat community moored on the Thames, just a stone’s throw from Chelsea’s King’s Road, in the early 1960s. Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead. She gives the river a sense of romance, of history, of danger. And she peoples the story with a cast of eccentric, but wholly believable, characters, as you would expect from those who chose to live in a kind of netherworld, neither belonging to land nor water.

Shiralee The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland

The highways and byways of rural New South Wales during the Great Depression are the focus of this Australian classic recently republished by Penguin. The central character, Macauley, is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer, who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). Accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee” (a slang word for burden), Macauley’s quiet, frugal lifestyle is tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down. As well as being a touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship, the book details a bygone way of life and showcases the beauty and terror of the Australian landscape in all her glory – think wide brown paddocks, swaying gum trees, dusty gravel roads, exotic wildlife, brilliant sunshine and unexpected thunderstorms.

SongsOfBlueandGold Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

This is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Based on the life of the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”, the book is best described as a “literary romance”. But don’t let that put you off. The rich, vivid descriptions of Corfu – the violet trumpets of morning glory growing everywhere, the tangerine sunsets over the water, the scent of jasmine on the night air – will have you planning your next summer holiday before you’ve even got to the last page.

TaintedBlood Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the first in an ongoing series of police procedurals, written by a former journalist, set in grey, rainy Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Erlendur Sveinsson is the morose detective in charge of the investigation into the mysterious death of an old man with a sordid past. The Icelandic location is particularly important, not just for the brooding, melancholy atmosphere it provides, but because the plot hinges on the scientific work being done at the country’s Genetic Research Centre (the Icelandic population is believed to be the most homogeneous society in the world). Tautly written with a fast-paced narrative, this is one of the first novels of the 21st century that heralded a new wave of Scandinavian crime fiction to hit British shores.

ThatTheyMayFace That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

The Irish countryside has never felt more alive, nor more beautiful, than in this book by the late, great John McGahern. The story mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders, Kate and Joe, who flee the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way. It is a beautiful, slow-moving story that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature. In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. And it also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

Tenderness The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The rugged beauty of the Canadian wilderness in the late 19th century is the setting of this award-winning novel, which is part crime fiction, part epic adventure tale. In a frontier township on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a French settler is found murdered in his shack. His neighbour decides to track down the killer when her teenage son is accused of the crime. What follows is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse hunt across some of the most isolated, and dangerous, terrain on earth. Penney’s descriptions of the landscape, the coldness – and the fear – are pitch-perfect. The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006.

Yacoubian The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building. Written by an Egyptian dentist-turned-novelist, the book has been a bestseller throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments. All the while Aswany shines his perceptive eye on the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

 So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend that feature evocative locations? What is missing from my list?

Books of the year

My favourite reads of 2008, part 1

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again. Time to look back on a year’s worth of novels and choose the ones I liked most. You might think this would be a fairly difficult task, but it’s quite easy when you’ve employed a rating system. Essentially this list comprises all the books I awarded a five-star review in 2008.

Come back tomorrow for another list comprised of books that made a lasting impression regardless of the number of stars they received…

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 favourite fiction reads of 2008 (in alphabetical order by book title):

 

‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra (first published 2007)
‘Khadra definitely knows how to write a thrilling, often thought-provoking, narrative so that it forms one powerhouse of a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the wider implications of faith and cultural identity. Given the times in which we live, The Attack is an important book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.

‘The Christmas Tree’ by Jennifer Johnston (1982)
Judging by the title alone The Christmas Tree sounds like it could be sentimental claptrap — and the somewhat dated illustration on my cover doesn’t do much to dispel that assumption. But this is truly a case of never judge a book by its cover, because what lies within is an exquisitely written tale about an Irish woman who returns home to die, and not once does Johnston resort to mawkishness or saccharine touches to achieve a deeply affecting story.’

‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber (2003)
Despite the constant debauchery (for want of a better word) that fills the pages, The Crimson Petal and the White never feels pornographic, nor sensationalist. Instead, because Faber has such an eye for detail and is a stickler for historical accuracy, the novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope — or want — to visit.

‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1997)
There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; others so shockingly brutal you’re not sure you want to read on. I found myself not knowing whether I should be grimacing or chortling throughout. But it’s this very fine line between comedy and tragedy that makes The Ginger Man work — on so many different levels. The beauty of this rather marvellous novel is that it paints a very human portrait of a man so desperately troubled — financially, emotionally, mentally — that it’s hard not to empathise with him just a little.

‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ by Sloan Wilson (1955)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 
is described as the quintessential 1950s novel, mainly because that’s the era in which it is set and written, but putting aside the sexism and the “traditional” family life — man goes to work, woman stays at home and looks after the children — depicted within its pages, it is still highly relevant and tackles themes and issues that are pertinent today.  For instance, at what point does one acknowledge that it is more important to enjoy one’s work than it is to make as much money as possible from something you detest? When do you stop worrying about the future and start enjoying the present? Should you tell people the truth or tell them what they want to hear? Is rampant consumerism the path to happiness?

‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen (1991)
‘This sparse, beautifully written novel, is an exquisite, mesmerising read. Open any page and the words are impeccably arranged to read like poetry.

‘Silent in the Grave’ by Deanna Raybourn (2008)
Silent in the Grave
is a rollicking good story that ploughs along at a furious pace, ably assisted by page-turning cliff hangers at the end of each chapter, so that you begin to wonder whether you will ever put the book down! The plot is terrific, with enough red herrings to keep you guessing, right up until the dark and somewhat unexpected denouement.

‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ by Richard Flanagan (1997)
At its most basic level The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the strained relationship between a father and daughter, but it is far more complicated than that, touching on a wide range of issues including poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence and wartime atrocities, all set within the social and historical context of Australia’s immigrant past.

‘The Spare Room’ by Helen Garner (2008)
This is a novel about death and friendship, about drawing lines and crossing them, about facing up to hard truths and shying away from things we’d rather not confront. But it also embraces other uncomfortable issues, including whether it is permissible to believe in alternative therapies if Western medicine does not have a solution, but all the while it never preaches, never comes across as heavy or patronising.

‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh (1948)
‘On the face of it, this book does not have much of a plot. It’s essentially a series of vignettes, held together by the passing seasons, but it is written in such beautiful, evocative prose, it’s difficult to find fault with the narrative. There’s a quiet, understated grace to every sentence that makes it a powerful and affecting read. I never thought I would say this, but I loved this book so much I’m afraid the late John McGahern, my favourite Irish writer and possibly my favourite writer per se,  has a rival for my affections.’

What books did you most enjoy this year?

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Iraq, literary fiction, Michel Faber, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Fire Gospel’ by Michel Faber

FireGospel

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 213 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Fire Gospel, due to be published on November 6, is the long-awaited novel from Michel Faber, the author of the oh-so delicious (and my favourite book of the year so far) The Crimson Petal and The White.

This new book is part of Canongate’s The Myths series, launched in 2005, in which “some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing”. The Fire Gospel is therefore a reworking of the myth of Prometheus, who supposedly brought the gift of fire to humanity against the wishes of Zeus, who said fire belonged to the gods alone. As punishment Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten by an eagle. Charming.

In Faber’s hands, the myth takes on a much more modern, and occasionally hilarious, focus. While on a trip to war-torn Iraq, Theo Griepenkerl, an academic from Canada, accidentally discovers nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. He smuggles them back to Toronto and begins to translate them from Aramaic. They turn out to be a secret, never-before-published fifth gospel that has the power to turn Christianity on its head.

Eager for publicity — and untold riches — Theo seeks out a publisher willing to take a risk on publishing his sensational discovery. But when every mainstream press turns him down he has to resort to convincing the relatively obscure text-book publisher Elysium that it’s worth printing. This is despite the fact that the firm’s biggest bestseller so far has been Sing Times Seven, a book written by a Norwegian school teacher about games parents should play with their children to teach them arithmetic.

‘My book isn’t about teaching dogs geometry,’ Theo reminded him. ‘For God’s sake, Mr Baum, it’s a new Gospel! It’s a previously unknown account of the life and death of Jesus, written in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. In fact, it will be the only Gospel written in Aramaic: the others are in Greek. And it’s earlier than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, years earlier. I can’t understand why publishers aren’t falling over themselves to put it out — 99.99 per cent of books aren’t important, not really. This one is.”

When The Fifth Gospel is eventually published, sales go through the roof and Theo becomes a celebrity doing the rounds of talk shows and author signings. Some of the funniest bits occur when Theo checks the reader reviews on Amazon, complete with misspellings and untempered opinions:

Julia Argandona, of Costa Mesa, CA, offered the following appreciation (which ’17 of 59′ customers apparently found ‘helpful’): I haven’t read this book yet but I can’t wait to read it so I am reviewing it early. The other people on Amazon who say don’t read it are brainwashed stooges of the Catholic religion, which has been sexually abusing children for 100’s of years. Who needs it? I already LOVE this book.

But it doesn’t take long before the wrath of Christians and other religious groups puts his life in danger. He might not have to endure the whole eagles-pecking-his-liver torture to which Prometheus was subjected, but it’s not far off…

I laughed a lot while reading this book. It’s wicked and provocative. But in some respects it feels a bit too knowing, a bit too clever (I hesitate to use the term smart alec). I got the sense that Faber wasn’t just poking fun at religion but was also taking a pop at the publishing game, specifically its obsession with sales figures and marketing. Us readers get a bit of a drubbing too.

The Fire Gospel is a fun read, but it is definitely not in the same league as Faber’s previous masterpiece, The Crimson Petal and The White. And if you are religious and easily offended by Jesus spoofs you’d best avoid it altogether.

Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Michel Faber, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories’ by Michel Faber

TheApple

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 199 pages; 2006.

Having loved Michel Faber‘s epic Victorian drama The Crimson Petal and the White when I read it recently, I decided to hunt out the sequel. Except The Apple is not actually a sequel but a collection of short stories about characters that featured in The Crimson Petal and the White. As the author points out in the foreword, “You needn’t have read that book in order to appreciate this one. The stories are, as stories should be, little worlds of their own”.

While I can’t disagree with this, I do think it helps if you’re at least familiar with the “original” book because it puts the stories into context. And part of the joy of reading The Apple is becoming re-acquainted with characters you already know and love, or, in some cases, rather detest!

This collection is obviously far less ambitious in scope than Faber’s magnus opus — it’s less than 200 pages and the typeface in my edition is especially large, for a start —  but it still captures the very essence of Victorian London which made the first book such a wonderful, evocative read.

There are seven stories all told, and each one features a key figure first introduced in The Crimson Petal. However, all is not as it might seem: this is not a chronological follow-on. Instead, we get glimpses of some character’s lives before we first met them and others we meet several years down the line.

If you want to know what happens to William Rackham and his kidnapped daughter, Sophie, then you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re dying to find out what happened to the prostitute Sugar — and judging by Faber’s foreward, he got boxes of letters from frustrated readers demanding just that — then it’s no secret to say you’re not going to get any closure here. While Sugar does feature in the opening story Christmas in Silver Street, this is a story about her younger self.

Other familiar characters that star in their own short story include the maid Clara, Mr Bodley and Emmaline Fox.

Each story is a quick, satisfying read, but taken as a whole this is not the type of book that can in any way represent or recreate the wondrous beauty of the 833-page novel that inspired it. This is really for diehard fans only and even then you may find it a little disappointing. (I did, however, very much enjoy the 11-page foreword in which Faber shares some of the very many letters he received upon publication of The Crimson Petal, but whether it’s worth buying this collection just for that isn’t really for me to say.)

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Michel Faber, Publisher, Setting

‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber

CrimsonPetal

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 833 pages; 2003.

Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is, quite simply, an astounding literary accomplishment. Within its 800-plus pages unfolds a story that draws the reader into another time and place so expertly that you feel as if you, too, are treading the streets of Victorian-era London.

Critics have quite rightly compared Faber’s epic novel with that other great Victorian writer Charles Dickens, but as Kathryn Hughes pointed out in the Guardian this one is not tempered by the social mores that prevented Dickens from writing freely. Faber’s book, a 21st century novel set in the 19th century, is lewd and bawdy, gritty and real, and there’s no pretense at keeping things in check lest he offend a delicate reader.

Indeed, one could argue that delicate readers should probably steer clear of this epic tale about a prostitute’s rise and fall in Victorian England. His central character, 19-year-old Sugar, is infamous for turning the kinds of tricks other whores refuse to do. And while Faber may not go into great detail regarding those tricks, he certainly does not shy away from letting us into the sordid, carnal world of an 1870s streetwalker. The language can, at times, be very crude — and if you are offended by the “C-word” you’d be wise to stay away.

But despite the constant debauchery (for want of a better word) that fills the pages, The Crimson Petal and the White never feels pornographic, nor sensationalist.Instead, because Faber has such an eye for detail and is a stickler for historical accuracy, the novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope — or want — to visit.

The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air.

Cabs are trotting backwards and forwards, thickly bearded gentlemen in dark clothing dash across their path, sandwich-board men patrol the gutters and, over there, a trio of street-sweepers are standing over a drain, cramming the accumulated porridge of snow-slush, dirt and horse-dung down through the grille with jabs of their brooms. Even as they toil, an equipage bristling with provincial businessmen jingles by, leaving a steamy festoon of turd in its wake.

The story is set over the course of 1875. It begins with William Rackham, the reluctant heir to a perfumery business, hunting out the services of a notorious whore whose name he discovered in an annual brothel directory. When he eventually meets the alluring Sugar, he finds himself as equally attracted to her brain as to her body.

Sugar, as it turns out, is more than the sum of her parts. She’s a would-be writer working on a novel about a woman who carries out the most gruesome acts of revenge on the men who have paid to sleep with her. Sugar is also highly intelligent but has simply never been given the opportunity to rise above the mire to which she’s become accustomed.

Over the course of many rendezvous, Sugar and William establish an easy rapport, both in the bed and out of it, and before long William finds that the relationship has given him the impetus he needs to take control of the perfumery business he had so long despised. When he begins making his fortune, he “buys” Sugar and installs her in a secret pad, supplying her with a weekly wage and all the material possessions she could ever hope for.

But all is not well at home. His wife is going mad and his young daughter’s governess is planning on leaving the household. Likewise, Sugar is desperately lonely and begins to wonder if her sexual powers over William are beginning to wane…

She’s tired of waiting for William. Days go by without a visit; then, when he does call on her, he has a mind full of concerns from his secret life — secret from her, that is. All his friends and family know him better than she, and they haven’t any use for the knowledge; it’s so unfair!

To say much more would mean revealing crucial plot spoilers, which I am loathe to do, but essentially both characters hatch plots — with drastic and unpredictable consequences — to ensure that they can continue to stay together as a kind of surreptitious “husband and wife”.

Intertwined with this major narrative thread is a series of other minor storylines involving secondary characters which serve to make the book an especially rich, multi-layered read.

There’s William’s brother, Henry, a pious would-be preacher and his will-they-or-won’t-they friendship with an older woman, Emmaline Fox. Mrs Fox, a widow, works for the Rescue Society, an organisation that helps give former prostitutes proper jobs, and thereby knows Sugar and the circles she once operated in.

Mrs Fox’s father is also a minor character. He’s an arrogant and somewhat creepy doctor who tends to William’s wife and pushes for her to be taken into a sanatorium, because how else do you treat a woman who is clearly suffering from a yet-to-be-diagnosed case of post-natal depression?

William’s two bachelor friends, Bodley and Ashwell (or Bashley and Oddwell, as William is want to call them in moments of extreme drunkenness), serve as foils to his conscience, often encouraging him to do outrageous things, and together they add a dollop of devilish humour to the story.

But despite the completely absorbing tale that I found The Crimson Petal and the White to be, it’s not without its (tiny) faults. There’s a rather annoying omnipresent narrator who can sometimes grate, although the following sentence did make me laugh out loud:

So there you have it: the thoughts (somewhat pruned of repetition) of
William Rackham as he sits on his bench in St James’s Park. If you are bored beyond endurance, I can offer only my promise that there will be fucking in the very near future, not to mention madness, abduction, and violent death.

The good thing is that this narrator does ease himself out of the story quite early on, and only makes his appearance known again at the very end, so it’s tolerable if you don’t really like that sort of thing. In any case, you shouldn’t let it put you off reading this wonderful, boisterous and hugely entertaining novel. It sounds ludicrous to say it, but at 833 pages it almost seemed too short and the near-perfect ending came almost too soon for my liking.