Rating 4 stars
My most recent Six Degrees of Separation chain reminded me that a friend lent me Michel Faber’s collection of short stories The Apple. These are stories about characters from his novel The Crimson Petal and the White, “little worlds of their own”, as he says in the Foreword, that leave the mysteries at the end of the novel largely intact.
You definitely don’t need to have read the novel to enjoy these stories, but I found that knowing what had happened to them in the larger work added to the reading experience. It’s a bit like meeting someone at a party and finding interest in the stories they tell without knowing anything about them, compared with seeing an old friend at the same party who you might not have seen in a while, and catching up.
The collection opens with a reminder of the maternal kindness Sugar seems to feel in spite of herself. It’s Christmas Day, Sugar is 17 and hungover after a heavy night with a customer. Christopher, the young son of a fellow prostitute who is the brothel’s drudge, comes to collect her sheets, prompting Sugar to head out into the Christmas world beyond Silver Street and do something nice for the boy. Faber’s writing, repeating the trick from the novel of having the narrator-observer conjure intimacy from the scene, brought me immediately back into Sugar’s world.
Over the next half dozen tales, Faber gives glimpses of youthful days for some and what happened next for others. We see the Rackhams’ maid Clara reduced to Sugar’s trade, her future prospects in service having been destroyed by William Rackham’s poisoned reference, in a mildly stomach churning story of the perversions of men. Emmeline Fox’s early days as a campaigner against slavery, when she was still Emmeline Curlew, reveal a scheming willingness to overlook principle on her and her father’s part to get her married. William Rackham’s chickens have come home to roost and he is left obsessed with his dead wife and his absent mistress, on the verge of estrangement from his second wife, scrabbling to hold onto his business. He’s the same weak man, but older.
The final story sheds a little light on the what happened next for Sugar and Sophie Rackham. It’s a story of Edwardian London and the bohemian life of an artist and his blue stocking wife. The wife is Sophie and we see the woman that Sugar helped to mould in the years after they left William Rackham’s house. It’s told by Sophie’s son, from the distance of 85 years.
This is a well thought out collection that has the same stamp of conviction that Faber’s novel has. His talent for embedding his research into the era he’s writing about without shouting about it is as evident here as in The Crimson Petal and the White. It was good to spend time in these characters’ company again.