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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Glistening Underbelly Of Victorian London

The Crimson Petal and the White - Michel Faber

Over eight hundred pages of very small print, The Crimson Petal and the White is, nevertheless, tremendously readable. Like a mixture of Fielding and Dickens filtered through a twenty-first century sensibility, it positively teems with life, its pages stuffed with characters who leap out of the pages at you.

It's the story of Sugar, an intelligent, resourceful prostitute, making her way in Victorian London. As you might imagine with such a protagonist, there's plenty of sex but it's not the kind to arouse the reader. Instead we are presented with a series of sordid, mercenary transactions which are as much to do with power as with satisfying passion. But that sounds as though this is an unremittingly sombre story. In fact, it's laced with dark humour and slapstick comedy.

Though not the most beautiful of women, Sugar carves out a career for herself far more successfully than any of her peers by understanding and pandering to all the needs of her clients, not just their physical cravings. When she becomes the mistress of William Rackham, the inept heir to a perfume empire, his fortunes are transformed. With Sugar behind him he becomes a formidable man of business, powerful and authoritative where once he was weak and ineffectual. But at heart he is still vain and utterly self-absorbed, as Sugar discovers when she comes to rely too heavily upon him and everything she has striven for is threatened with destruction.

Michael Faber's narrative voice is confident and accomplished and his language often remarkable. Here's a sentence that stopped me in my tracks at the bottom of the first page. "It's an ashen hour of night, blackish-grey and almost readable like undisturbed pages of burnt manuscript." All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable reads I've embarked on for a long time