The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michael Faber

This 2002 work is a rich and brazen recreation of a novel of the 19th century. It begins beautifully, with the author addressing the reader and guiding him through the introduction of the main characters. Unfortunately, they are not sympathetic characters, and as the work progresses one becomes less interested in their individual fates, and more in the details of the world the author has created and the adventures his characters have. The focus is on the Rackham family, especially, but also their friends and servants, and other members of society. In sum, the reader explores a distant world that offers rich and poor both permissions and limitations.

The main characters are Sugar, an unattractively thin but smart prostitute; William Rackham, the dissolute son of a wealthy manufacturer, who is fascinated by her; Agnes, William’s sickly wife; Sophie, William’s young and innocent child; and Henry Rackham, William’s brother, a dedicated but unworldly parson. The problem for me is that the two main characters, Sugar and William, are both selfish, using each other for their own pleasure, and intent on advancing their status in society. As a result, it was impossible for me to identify with them, even though I was caught up by their efforts to take advantage of personal, business, and social relationships.

The author sustains our interest in this long novel by creating provocative adventures that explore the complexity of Victorian society. He also understands the literary value of a character reversal, and the interest it creates. In Sugar’s case, she gradually loses a hatred of men that has been fostered by her service as a prostitute. Instead, she absorbs an awareness of love, first through her relationship with William, but even more through serving as governess and teacher of his daughter Sophie. Indeed, at the end she seems dedicated more to the life of Sophie than to her own life.

Further richness is added when this intelligent woman abandons a cruel novel about prostitution, and becomes enthralled by a diary and journal that Agnes has been keeping. Sugar devours it to learn about both the Agnes of whom she is jealous and the details of Agnes’ relationship with her husband.

As a sidelight, one of the primary characteristics of Agnes is that she was raised a Catholic and wishes to return to that faith. Her efforts are presented sympathetically, but one speculates that her religion is introduced primarily to express her long repression of herself as a sexual being.

William’s reversal, on the other hand, represents a change from an undisciplined, pleasure-seeking dandy to being the effective manager of his father’s perfume business—albeit that he also relies at times on the sage advice of Sugar. Indeed, he seems to be putty in her hands—until nature intervenes, and another reversal occurs.

The story itself can be briefly told. Sugar begins as a successful prostitute with higher ambitions. She is drafting a novel in which she gets revenge on her clients by killing them; meanwhile, she suffers from a skin disease that seems to symbolize the corruption within her. William, on the other hand, endures life with half-mad Agnes, a child wife who understands neither her own body nor the functioning of sex; and so he seeks release with Sugar, but also, unexpectedly, finds companionship with her. He first puts her up in a private hide-away, and then brings her into his home as a governess for daughter Sophie. Whereupon, their relationship fluctuates back and forth on a physical, psychological, and emotional pendulum. But nothing significant happens until Sugar discovers herself to be pregnant.

Meanwhile, peripheral characters, such as brother Henry and his girl friend Emmeline Fox, who works to help prostitutes, move in and out of their lives, as do William’s servants and his dissolute friends Bodley and Ashwell.

And yet, despite all the intriguing adventures and literary craftsmanship, after taking us through 900 pages of a family saga that resembles a 19th century soap opera, the author fails to bring his novel to a conclusive ending. This is perhaps a very 21st century approach (as is the often graphic references to Victorian sex), but it is far from the 19th century literature he is recreating. In other words, Faber has decided, in the modern spirit, that it is unnecessary to convey the fate of his major characters. This covers Sugar, Sophie, Agnes, William, and Henry. And so, despite the richness of the telling, along with my inability to identify with these characters, I sense a hollowness at the core of this novel.

Charles Taylor has an interesting take in Salon on the reason for this hollowness. He writes that Faber’s opening pages, which we both admire, and his later addressing of the reader, keep those readers at a distance from his characters, keep them at arm’s length as observers, and prevent them from getting inside the skin of his characters. And, thus, by his own intrusions, Faber reminds us that he is controlling the actions of these characters rather than it being they who are making their own decisions.

Taylor sums up his review by saying Faber’s novel is “damnably irritating” but “never less than compelling.” That it has “divided my sympathies,” engaging him on a narrative level even as “the story does not conclude but simply stops.” He calls the novel “a compelling perversity: a long, detailed Victorian novel from someone who doesn’t appear to like Victorian novels.”

Like Taylor, I, too, was caught up by the characters’ adventures, impressed by the Victorian detail, felt myself involved in its world, and yet was frustrated by the distancing. Faber seems, in retrospect, to be an author who is too ambitious, too risk-taking for his own good. And yet that may well be why he is held in such high regard by many critics. All in all, I am in favor of risk-taking, but more when it expands the reader’s vision, and less when, as here, it limits the reader’s vision. Or when, as here, the author’s objective overrides the story’s objective. (July, 2017)

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber

This 2014 work is a strange novel, and a fascinating one. It offers a challenge to one’s imagination and a challenge to one’s faith. It is the story of a Christian pastor, Peter Leigh, and his religious wife, Bea. They meet in a hospital, after he was injured in a fall while trying to escape after a robbery. She is his nurse. Love develops between them, as she motivates him to forego his criminal past and turn to religion, just as she had. And theirs becomes a love that will sustain them throughout this book.

But their religious faith raises a major question. For it is challenged by the separate worlds they will encounter, separate worlds that they choose together, certain that their love will survive their separation and their mutual belief that Peter will succeed in bringing the word of God to a distant land.

Indeed, to a far distant land, to the planet Oasis, in a galaxy far away. This planet is being explored and cultivated by an enigmatic corporation called USIC. And here is where author Faber challenges one’s imagination. For while this is serious fiction, it is also science fiction. Peter encounters a world of endless vistas without vegetation, with long days and nights, with unique rain squalls, and with an unusual white flower that is converted by the mysterious, robed Oasans, into food and materials.

Peter is sent to this world by USIC to replace a former missionary. He is to bring the message of Christ to the local population that is already fervently Christian. These Oasans welcome Peter and clamor for more religious instruction. His major resource is the King James Bible, which they call, in their language, The Book of Strange New Things.

The Oasans are looked down upon by the employees of the base settlement that has been established on this distant planet by USIC. They have been told to give Peter anything he needs, because this will further their relationship with the Oasans who provide their food. But while they assist him, they do not take to this new resident who does not share their practical view of this new planet. Only one does, his guide, a woman pharmacist, Alex Grainger. But while an emotional charge develops between the two, they both are careful to avoid deeper emotional ties.

For much of the novel, Peter and his distant wife Bea share messages of mutual support regarding both their love and the importance of Peter’s spiritual mission. But then reality enters, influencing them both. Back on earth, natural disasters occur and society begins to break down. Bea reports these, and slowly we realize they are challenging her faith in God. She also feels deserted by Peter, as she attempts to survive in a disintegrating world over which neither she nor anyone on earth has control.

Peter is troubled by the situation back home and its effect on her, but is more focused on his own situation, his own commitment to his mission with the mysterious Oasans and their need for spiritual support. Gradually, we realize the fervent and sincere faith of this couple is being challenged, both on earth and on this distant planet, and one wonders whether their mutual faith will survive. Where, in other words is this work of fiction headed? In fact, I began to speculate if the positive reception of this work was a reflection of a literary world that seldom relates to religious themes.

One of the achievements of this novel is the vividness of the confrontation between two civilizations, as experienced by Peter. He and the Oasans take a different approach to their faith. They are more accepting of faith; he is more challenged by it. He has also not experienced a faith like theirs, a faith so undemanding, so compatible with their spiritual needs. Nor has he met beings like them, beings with no recognizable characteristics, not even a recognizable face. He ends up identifying them based on the slightly different colors of the robes they wear. Another achievement is the unity with which Peter and Bea act at the beginning of the novel, and then their separate concerns as the reality on earth changes her life and the reality he confronts on Oasis distracts him from the problems she is facing back home.

The spiritual evolution of this novel concerns, initially, the adversity back on earth. These catastrophic events suggest that the end of the world is coming. The characters do not conclude this, but the author raises the suggestion in a passing paragraph shortly after I wondered about this possibility myself. But unasked is whether the end of the world also means the end of this distant galaxy, and all human life there as well. Or is this is distant civilization being cultivated by USIC to become a haven from earth’s destruction? That is, are the native Oasans to perish along with the humans among them? This is a religious/spiritual issues that the novel does not raise.

Indeed, there are no answers here to the issue of faith. Faber even suggests the Oasans mistakenly believe in Christ because He does not die, and think belief in Him will also save them from death. In a sense, the author comes up with a religious conclusion that has it both ways. There is one environment in which religious faith continues, and one environment in which it does not. My problem is that I was not convinced by its explanation of why in one environment it does not: “The holy book…had one cruel flaw: it was not very good at offering encouragement or hope to those who weren’t religious. ‘With God nothing shall be impossible,’ proclaimed Luke, and that message…now turned itself over like a dying insect, and became ‘Without God, everything shall be impossible.’ What use was that?”

The survival of faith depends on the reality men face? Is that truly an argument against faith? Or is it an argument reflecting the weakness of man? Reflecting a certain despair. Where is man’s perseverance? Yes, one can pray in such circumstances, but why the insistence that God must respond—or one cannot believe in Him?

This work certainly make me interested in reading more of Faber. Because of the credibility of his strange world, the reality of his characters, and his fearless use of a popular genre. I only wish he had given more answers here. For example, to the fate of Peter and Bea. Or is this effort he spent ten years on also setting the stage for a sequel? (November, 2016)