Author: Michel Faber
My copy: Canongate, 2011
Blurb: ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them…’ So begins the irresistible voyage into the dark side of Victorian London. Amongst an unforgettable cast of low-lifes, physicians, businessmen and prostitutes, meet our heroine, Sugar, a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can. Be prepared for a mesmerising tale of passion, intrigue, ambition and revenge.
I hadn’t heard of this book (I know, where had I been?!) until my work colleague was talking to me about it. It sounded great to me as I’ve always been a bit obsessed with Victorian London; one of my third year modules at university was Victorian Underworlds and I’ve even considered studying a Masters in Victorian Literature and Society. I thought that this book would play right into my love of this era and I wasn’t disappointed.
Far from being a Victorian novel which follows the trifles of the upper classes, Faber does not hold back and drags the reader through the grimy, streets of London. There are no rose-tinted glasses applied here and I have to say, some of the descriptions are pretty shocking. Not that this is a bad thing by any means, as I think it’s Faber’s vibrant, in-depth descriptions that really brings this book to life. I can’t remember a book that describes so vividly a street that I can feel the slimy cobblestones under my feet, I can smell beer and rotting wood and filth, I can picture the hustle and bustle of prostitutes, raggedy children and shady men selling their questionable wares.
However there is a slight downside to such extravagant description which is, I think, the plot suffers to accommodate it. For such a long book as this, it is incredibly slow-paced; usually I can get along with slow books, but this is on another level. At one point I realised I was 350 pages in and notch had happened that I hadn’t really guessed at. One of the most noticeable elements of this novel is the narration style which immediately hooked me. (WARNING: SPOILERS) On the very first page the reader is addressed which isn’t necessarily unusual for a novel. However, the particular omniscient narrator made me feel unbelievably uncomfortable, like I going to be in some sort of danger, and also a little bit guilty for wanting to pry:
When you first picked me up, you didn’t fully appreciate the size of me, nor did you expect I would grip you so tightly, so fast. Sleet stings your cheeks, sharp little spits of it so cold they feel hot, like fiery cinders in the wind. Your ears begin to hurt. But you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray, and it’s too late to turn back now.
It’s a bizarre way to make the reader feel but it really works as a device to keep them engaged. This omniscient narrator allows the reader to jump from character to character at the start; the reader may be told about one character when another character walks pat them and the narrator will instruct you to follow them instead. I absolutely loved this way of progressing through the story but sadly it doesn’t continue throughout. There is also less and less of this creepy, all-knowing narrator the further into the story you delve which is a real shame because it was the part I found most interesting. Although the characters were described in the most exquisite detail, I found it hard to connect to them and I think it was because I didn’t really like any of them. The blurb states that Sugar, the prostitute, the mistress and later on the governess, is the story’s heroine but to me she didn’t feel like a fitting one. Sugar is the protagonist and we get a lot from her point of view but she is not a character that I really connected with. The reader discovers that she has had a tough upbringing (but not any tougher than the other poverty-stricken people you will come into contact with) but I found her ultimately selfish. Towards the end of the novel, there seems to be a genuine connection between Sugar and Sophie, the daughter of William who ’employs’ Sugar as his mistress, but Sugar uses this trust to progress her own selfish means. The other characters did not make a huge impact on me either: William is moping, greedy and spineless, Agnes is naive and cold, Henry is falsely pious and Sophie comes across as quite emotionally unavailable. The only character I enjoyed was Emmeline Fox but I got the impression that the reader was not supposed to like her.
The events in the story were all fairly predictable, minus one death (which I won’t disclose here!) and the ending. The ending came as a complete shock and I was furious with it! As I re-read the last page for the second time, I desperately flicked through the last empty pages in the book and shouted “WHAT?!”, causing my cat to jump off my lap and run under the bed! The reason I was furious with it was because I honestly feel it was a bit of a cop-out. (WARNING: MAJOR ENDING SPOILER) For the novel to end with just about every loose end imaginable was completely unsatisfying. I felt like I had almost wasted reading this enormous book because it was not the ending I wanted; more than that, it was an ending nobody would want, expect, or be pleased with. Being a bit of a control freak, having such an abrupt ending made me uncomfortable. In some ways, I can understand why it could be argued that it was an interesting way to end but I was disappointed.
Overall, I really enjoyed the setting and wonderfully in-depth descriptions which completely transported me in to the story. On the other hand, it was a little slow, the characters were difficult to connect with and the plot left a little something to be desired. I would recommend this novel though to those who want to lose themselves in the frighteningly real streets of working-class Victorian London.
My favourite quote:
A single day spent doing things which fail to nourish the soul is a day stolen, mutilated, and discarded in the gutter of destiny.
(I posted about the quote for the 3 days, 3 quotes tag. Check it out here)
On a side note, I think Percy enjoyed it too!