"Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them." From that captivating opening (echoed several times later on), you are a voyeur, on an extraordinarily vivid journey. I was enthralled from the start, raced through the 800+ pages at every opportunity, and remain in awe of the way the story is told. Regularly addressing the reader in conspiratorial tones, lends an air of intimacy that suits the subject.
The central character is Sugar, a young prostitute who is uncommonly intelligent and well-read, but not conventionally attractive (she has psoriasis and doesn't really hide it), though she will famously do anything. During the dramatic turns of the story, we learn much about her, and yet she remains something of an enigma: once out of the brothel and engaged as a (somewhat unconventional) governess, her motives are often unclear, creating a growing sense of doubt that echoes those that others have about her.
However, in many ways, six-year-old Sophie is at least as important, partly because her existence is barely acknowledged for much of the time. She is a very sorry figure with "the air of a domestic pet bought for a child who has since died" and "the defeated look of an impounded animal". A tatty rag doll is one of her few toys, and "Sophie handles him tenderly, with a hint of sadness, as if conceding he's ever-so-slightly less alive than she'd like to think he is". Nevertheless, Sophie's vulnerability and trust has a powerful effect, "Sugar feels something she would never have guessed she could feel: the thrill of flesh against unfamiliar flesh, She who has been fingered by a thousand strangers." Ultimately, this is the key relationship in the book. I think the only weakness is, later on, when Sophie's thoughts are implausibly adult and perceptive for one so inexperienced in life and with people.
The main male character is William Rackham, who runs a perfumery and soap business. This is in sharp contrast to the dirtier aspects of the book (literal and metaphorical), though the analogy is never laboured. More powerful is Sugar's hatred of cut flowers, "The flowers she can tolerate... die firmly on their stems, in one piece to the last".
Being set in the 1870s, religion is relevant theme, along with how and if to help the poor and fallen. Drama and humour comes from three very different Christian characters: Agnes is a superstitious Roman Catholic, dabbling in other supernatural areas; Henry is traditional, idealistic, upstanding and uptight C of E, and Mrs Fox is pragmatic and radical - putting needs before doctrine, "a dissenter within a wider certainty", and not afraid to give her opinion (e.g. not believing the virgin birth!).
Mrs Fox and Henry try, in very different ways, to help the destitute, but Sugar's intentions to do likewise come to naught. "When Sugar was poor, she always fancied that if she ever became rich, she'd help all the poor women in her profession, or at least all those she knew personally", but she doesn't, not even through her writing. "The stench of charity is as real as the horse-shit on her shoes." When visiting an old friend, she is uncomfortably aware that "Nothing I say comes from my heart" and she is "ashamed this time of feeling ashamed". She feels powerless to help.
THE DESIRE TO WRITE
An ultimately futile passion for writing is a key experience for many of the characters (William, Agnes, Sugar, Bodley and Ashwell, even perhaps, Sophie). Sugar's motives are strong and honourable, thinking of prostitutes, she ponders, "I am their voice... Who understands and cares more?". None of the writers change anything, yet somehow, the book is exciting more than depressing (though there is plenty of cause for misery).
Describing this as "dirty Dickens" sounds pejorative, but I think it encapsulates it rather well.
There are many echoes of Dickens in some of the names, the milieu and the exposition of social ills (and something about Mrs Castaway's obsessive scrapbooking reminds me of Madame Defarge); you could link to Jane Eyre (mad wife and husband in claiming to be love with the governess, though it's not certain whether he really is), though that is more tenuous.
The last quarter of the book is a little flabby, but it's not bad, and what has gone before is so strong, that I forgive it that.
It ends abruptly, leaving the reader with many questions:
* If Agnes had stayed in her room, could William and Sugar have been happy?
* Is Sugar's concern for Agnes genuine, and if so, is she right to help her in the way she does?
* Can Sugar's final action be justified? (Is William really that monstrous?)
* Why doesn't Sugar do more to help those less fortunate - and is she wrong not to do so?
* Does the bond between Sophie and Sugar convince, and is it strong enough?
Don't be tempted to read "The Apple" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/258603443) for answers; there will be a few, but they're most unsatisfying. The original incompleteness works better. On the other hand, a completely separate collection of short stories, "Some Rain Must Fall", shows this novel isn't a one-off in terms of his writing (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/615020188).
* "She slipped out of the room, like a pretty moth emerging from a husk of dried slime."
* "The stagnant contraceptive bouillon... the germs of another man's offspring."
* Even shops can be sexualised "having unlocked the chastity of shutters and doors, they can't see the point of maintaining any shred of modesty."
* "It was they [husband and son] who used to make her life a story... Nowadays her life is more like a newspaper: aimless, up-to-date, full of meaningless events."
* Shops "have expanded in celebration of the crinoline's demise. The modern woman has been streamlined to permit her to spend freely."
* "Superstitious atheist christian... believes in a God who, while he may no longer be responsible for the sun rising, the saving of the Queen or the provision of daily bread, is still the prime suspect when anything goes wrong."
* A breakfast laden with awkward silence, "small morsels of time are consumed, with an indigestible eternity remaining."
* "Letty greets them so avidly, as if a fresh coat of obsequiousness has just been applied to her."
* "The sepulchral stillness of suburbia."
* "That peculiar mixture of feline resentment and canine respect" when workers see a lady.
* "She's so weary of stealth... she wishes only to be a member of the family... cosily welcome, forever."