Imagine a Dickens novel freed of the restraints imposed by Victorian propriety. There’s no other way to describe this enthralling melodrama from the British author of Under the Skin (2000).
Set in 1870s London, Faber’s second outing is a brilliantly plotted chronicle of the collision between high and low, as played out in the complex relationship binding would-be writer William Rackham, heir to a perfume-maker’s fortune and an inveterate whoremaster, and a cunning prostitute known as Sugar, whose special erotic talents inflame the smitten Rackham to the extent that he installs her in his home, ostensibly as his young daughter’s governess; in fact, as the mistress who distracts his attention from the illnesses and “fits” endured by his frail (and possibly “mad”) wife Agnes. Faber tells this story through the voice of a cajoling omniscient narrator implicitly likened to a whore luring her customer on, incidentally providing a thickly detailed panorama of 19th-century urban life. And the characters: not only the egoistic, self-justifying Rackham, the fascinating Agnes (a keen study in what used to be called “female hysteria”), and the calculating Sugar (herself a secret authoress, of “a tale that throws back the sheets from acts never shown and voices never heard”)—but also William’s priggish brother Henry, who wishes to reform prostitutes but suffers “nightmares of erotic disgrace”; Henry’s cohort in benevolence, “Rescue Society” bluestocking Emmeline Fox; the Hogarthian procuress Mrs. Castaway and the ghastly Colonel Leek; “eminent swells” Bodley and Ashwell, William’s companions in depravity and the exploitation of women—these and many others leap from Faber’s crowded pages, as the whore Sugar’s progress clashes with the sanctity of the Rackham hearth, Agnes’s runaway manic-depression, William’s inexplicable recovery of love for his wife and eventual dismissal of her replacement—and leads to Sugar’s horrific climactic revenge. It’s hard to imagine that any contemporary novelist could have appropriated with such skill and force the irresistible narrative drive of the Victorian three-decker, or that readers who hunger for story won’t devour this like grateful wolves.
Riveting, and absolutely unforgettable.