It wowed television audiences when it was turned into a mini series, and ANDREW FFRENCH discovers The Crimson Petal and the White is a real page turner.

IT took five years before someone had the idea of adapting Michel Faber’s acclaimed novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, for TV.

In 2007, David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films, read the 834-page bestseller on holiday and was gripped by the author’s story of 19-year-old Sugar escaping from a brothel, and his vivid recreation of the murkier aspects of Victorian London.

When Thompson returned from holiday he was disappointed to discover that the rights had been obtained by a film company, but in the end the company did not pursue the option, and the four-part mini-series ended up on the BBC.

The recent TV adaptation starring Romola Garai, pictured right, Chris O’Dowd, Gillian Anderson, Richard E Grant and Mark Gatiss was so enthralling that I decided to read the story it was based on.

I thought I had pulled a muscle when I picked the book up. Even the paperback is a heavyweight.

But once I had got used to the strain I started to enjoy myself.

Faber’s novel is Dickensian in its scope and ambitions, but the presence of a narrator who frequently reminds us we are reading a novel places the narrative firmly in the 21st century in terms of writing technique.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed this romp through the Victorian underworld, I must warn squeamish readers of The Guide that they might want to stick to something a little more comforting, like Marian Keyes, or maybe Joanna Trollope.

Faber’s story is an epic tale of lust, class and power and, as it focuses on a relationship between a prostitute called Sugar and a perfume magnate called Rackham, there is plenty of sex and at times Faber’s tale becomes uncomfortably explicit.

This is all part of the author’s attempt to make readers believe they have really stepped back in time and the detailed account of the sweat, noise and dirt of Victorian London is so vivid that he rarely fails to achieve this.

The plot of The Crimson Petal and the White is relatively simple but Faber makes the story special with lively dialogue, colourful descriptive recreations of the streets and buildings and a disturbingly intimate view of the bedroom encounters of Sugar and her clients.

At the heart of the novel is well-read prostitute Sugar, who spends every spare moment composing a violent, pornographic diatribe against men.

Sugar strives to make a better life for herself but when she is taken up by perfume magnate William Rackham, she is forced to balance financial security against the least pleasant requirements of their relationship.

Faber’s story often flags up the most unfair aspects of class and sexual politics but he never allows his personal views to interrupt the flow.

The author has clearly carried out exhaustive research into the period and as a result has probably already written the novel he will be best remembered for.

It took me a few chapters before I really got hooked on The Crimson Petal and the White, but then I realised I was in the middle of a cracking Victorian page turner and I’m now keen to get hold of The Apple, Faber’s collection of short stories about characters from the novel.

* THE AUTHOR: NOVELIST and short story writer Michel Faber was born in Holland. He moved to Australia in 1967 and has lived in Scotland since 1992.

His short story Fish won the Scotland on Sunday short story competition in 1996 and it is included in his first collection of short tales, Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories.

His first novel, Under the Skin in 2000, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel award and he has also won the Neil Gunn Prize and an Ian St James award.

The Crimson Petal and the White in 2002 was a bestseller and his collection of stories, The Apple, continues the tale of some of the characters from the novel.

His most recent books are Vanilla Bright Like Eminem (2007), a further short story collection, and The Fire Gospel, (2008) a novel.

Faber is considered a master of the page turner and settings in his stories include the Scottish Highlands, an isolated chateau in Belgium, and Yorkshire's Whitby Abbey.

However, his thrillers are difficult to categorise, combining gothic elements with romance and horror.

* The Crimson Petal and the White, published by Canongate, is this month's Oxford Mail/Waterstones Book of The Month