Usually when coming to the end of a book of brick-like proportions, it's good that the story is over. Not so, however, with Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, an 835 page blend of sheer enjoyment and frustration. Set in Victorian London and using postmodern techniques, the novel, I would like to think, is one of the best published this century. With the book ending the way it did, it left readers the world over to guess at what happens next. And it would seem that many didn't want to guess: they wanted to know; they wanted closure.
So now, to The Apple, a meagre collection of short stories from Faber that, four years later, returns to the world of The Crimson Petal and the White. In the foreword the author refers to letters from fans from all walks of life asking what happened next, only to have their questions subverted. There will be no sequel, Faber states, but he does offer this further set of tales which should shed some light on some of the characters.
Unfortunately, it would seem The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories is more of a cashcow between novels for Faber than anything else. As such, it will probably be only of interest to devout fans of the original novel. Two of the stories (Christmas on Silver Street and Chocolate Hearts from the New World) have previously been published, with the remainder written especially for this collection.
There are two stories about Miss Sugar, the whore, both of which look at her past. Christmas on Silver Street shows her as a tart with a heart as she introduces Christopher, the son of a prostitute in the brother where they work, to Christmas. The other, The Apple, shows Sugar becoming annoyed by a missionary's treatment of her child, an event that inspires Sugar's later scribblings in The Crimson Petal and the White. Both of these stories are simple snapshots, and twee to boot. They say little for the character of Sugar, or for the collection.
Some of the minor characters from The Crimson Petal and the White also muscle in on some of the action. A young Emmeline Curlew (Emmeline Fox in the novel) writes to cotton farmers in America asking them to free their slaves in Chocolate Hearts From The New World, to which, quite by surprise, she receives a selection of confectionary with an accompanying letter in response. Mr Bodley, strangely separated from his lifelong friend, Mr.Ashwell, arrives at a brothel only to be preoccupied by the sight of a fly upon a prostitutes buttocks, which renders him quite impotent, in The Fly, and Its Effect Upon Mr Bodley. Like the Sugar stories, these tales serve only to bring the characters alive one more time; unfortunately, they have very little to say.
In Medicine, a portrait is given of William Rackham's life years after the novel ends; here it shows the decline of his business and of the man himself, in addition to his loveless second marriage. While an unsettling end for one of the novel's major characters, there is little substance to be wrought from the tale. Rackham's former employee, Clara, takes centre stage in Clara And The Rat Man. Since leaving Rackham's home, Clara has, like many women in London struggling to make ends meet, fallen into prostitution. One day a strange client offers her a shilling per week to grow one of her finger nails. For what purpose, it's best to read this story as it's one that nicely stands alone from the Crimson Petal canon and has much action and character to it.
The best story, however, is also the lengthiest, taking up more than a quarter of the pages: A Mighty Horde Of Women In Very Big Hats, Advancing. Where all the other stories play with events a few years before or after the events of the original novel, this story is set under the reign of a different monarch. Told as the reminiscences of Sophie Rackham's son, it hints at what happened at the end of the novel although doesn't deal so much with such events. Instead, the narrator recalls his mother in her thirties, a suffragette who, during a march, gets nostaligic for her past life. Although it gives as much information as one would need to get an idea of what happened after events in The Crimson Petal and the White, it ends in a similar manner - although this time we are promised more, but given less.
The best thing about this collection is, as always, Faber's writing: light, breezy, with never a word out of place. Or an incorrect word in place. He certainly has the measure of his characters, it's clear he is still in touch with their world. But with the novel ending with the call to let go, it feels like Faber should have taken his own advice. The Apple is a collection of well told stories but with little purpose; it's hardly worth the bite.