In my Copenhagen-dwelling days, one of my greatest pleasures was to tour the second-hand bookshops in search of English-language books. I had a favourite haunt - just around the corner from my home - which had pile upon pile of ridiculously cheap books in all languages. The owner opened the shop whenever he felt like it and that was my only problem: I had to be Constantly Vigilant or I could miss the one day in three months when he felt like opening the shutters. The other second-hand shops had fewer books, were more expensive and tended to have the same selection of books. The first Bridget Jones novel was in heavy supply, as was The Celestine Prophecy, Dan Brown's numerous tomes and .. Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. In my head I yoked Faber's book together with these other books of dubious quality and so I never read it, although I had plenty of copies to choose from. Fast-forward some five or six years.
Michel Faber's Under the Skin, a 'strange, disturbing, genre-defying short novel', turned out to be one of the most fascinating reads in recent memory (I must revisit it soon). Of course I am eager to read more books by Faber, and so another second-hand shop (in another city in another country in another life) delivers yet another copy of The Crimson Petal and White. This time I bought it. It bears no resemblance to Bridget Jones, Dan Brown, nor The Celestine Prophecy. Instead it reads like Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet written by the step-child of John Fowles.
The Crimson is a Victorian novel written for the 21st century. Like Waters' first few books, it explores the underbelly of Victorian society in a way that Charles Dickens could not: the prostitutes, the corpses dragged from the Thames, the blood, the gore, the shame. Faber has a writerly touch which infuses the book with tiny postmodern flourishes - an omniscient narrator breaking the fourth wall, texts within texts and many characters being authors themselves. His touch is light enough not to irritate, but occasionally it is almost too light: mid-novel it almost disappears only to reappear just before the end. Knowing references to "proper" Victorian novels abound. Readers who have read Collins' The Woman in White, Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Dickens' Great Expectations will savour Faber's small nods; readers who comes to The Crimson without any 19th C novels behind them will enjoy The Crimson as a rollicking good read.
And it is a very good read. I find it difficult to find faults with The Crimson, but at the same time it did not captured me in the same way that Under the Skin did. It is significantly less raw and more conventional (by current standards - certainly not by 19th C standards!). I finished reading it today and found out that the novel has been commissioned for a four-part BBC drama. And perhaps that sums up my sole problem with the book: it is a novel thriving on exploring the dark side of society, and yet it is polite enough to become a Sunday evening BBC costume drama.
Kimfobo at Reading Matters has a superb review, as does Tom of A Common Reader. Maybe The Crimson Petal and the White is still just tainted in my mind by sharing those shelves with Bridget Jones et al all those years ago.