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The Crimson Petal and the White    by Michel Faber order for
Crimson Petal and the White
by Michel Faber
Order:  USA  Can
Harvest, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Mary Ann Smyth

The Crimson Petal and the White should be required reading for every wannabe writer. Its author, Michel Faber, has perfected the art of descriptive phrasing and drops his readers into each scene with a sure and gentle hand. His descriptions are not long and flowery, but rather short, clipped and precise, and he is able to present each scene or character with a paucity of well-chosen words. 'She decapitates an egg; inside it is saffron-yellow and as soft as anyone could possibly want,' depicts a quiet scene with husband and wife. 'Rashers of bacon crisp enough to spread butter with,' allows the reader to envision the placidity of the scene in contrast to the inner turmoil each of the characters suffers.

Faber's characterizations are paramount in the story of Sugar, a young prostitute in 1875 London, who strives to better her lot in life. While the narrator leads the reader through the book as though he were an observer of the actual happenings, the characters are unaware of the voyeurs watching every move they make. And what characters! Splendidly drawn, the players come so much to life that one can imagine conversations with them, whether in the King's English or with the Cockney accent that is so convincingly presented.

I wallowed in this epic (all 833 pages) and hated it to end. The Crimson Petal and the White is bawdy without being offensive. Encounters between the prostitutes and their customers are matter of fact and become familiar with each passing page. This is a love story gone awry; a history lesson of Victorian life with more than a glimpse into how the other half lived in those times; an account of madness and the effects that madness has on those around it; a depiction of neglected children and the lives they missed; a story of a man and a woman wonderfully told.

I have read another of Michel Faber's books, Under the Skin, and enjoyed it. But this one is the Gone With the Wind of Victorian London. It was apparently ten years in the writing, and the research is extraordinary - from every little detail of a person's attire to the last wee knick-knack in a room, to a view of the teeming London streets. Treat yourself today to a copy of The Crimson Petal and the White and experience a week of very fine reading.

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