Deftly dissecting life through the eyes of women

Times Staff Writer

Thank goodness for Eve. Yes, the apple business got us thrown out of paradise. But the way that her descendants have helped poor men through the centuries shows that a rib for a woman is a very good trade (heck, it’s a steal).

Like the prostitute Sugar in Michel Faber’s bestselling novel “The Crimson Petal and the White,” the women of his “The Courage Consort” are thoughtful, injured, delicate -- they dwell in the depths of sensitivity while their male counterparts flap about on the surface. Each woman is in need of healing, but though old Victorian tales suggest that the best medicine lies in a man’s protective embrace, Faber -- a self-confessed fan of Victorian novels -- isn’t about to accept such a facile solution.

Don’t worry: These three novellas are hardly thinly veiled exercises in feminist theory. The evocative language and intriguing glimpses of unfamiliar worlds that dazzled readers of “The Crimson Petal and the White” are here in abundance.

Whether he’s describing an excavation of an ancient abbey and the monastic practices of its patroness, St. Hilda, the intricacies of avant-garde music or what it’s like to live in polar regions, like any writer worth his salt, Faber presents the varied textures of life in a convincing manner. “Who we give ourselves to is very important, don’t you think?” asks Sian, a lonely archeologist flirting with Mack, a hunky doctor-in-training in “The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps.”


Sian’s the sort of person who overthinks every situation. She can be a bit of a snoot, she’s loyal (she once followed her journalist boyfriend to Bosnia), she’s a casualty of modern barbarity (she lost a leg there) and of old-fashioned heartbreak (her boyfriend later dumped her). At 34, with little human contact except for the dusty bones she unearths in the Northumbrian town of Whitby, she licks her wounds and wrestles with her inner demons. The town abbey, accessible by a winding staircase above “the wild waters of the North Sea,” is a quiet haven. Then Mack jogs across her path one morning with his dog, Hadrian, and aims to win her love.

What brings them close together and then finally apart is a 200-year-old murder mystery: a tightly wound scroll in a bottle unearthed by Mack’s father and kept around the house as a curiosity, until Mack asks Sian to use her skills to unwind and read its message. The dying confession of a whaler, it recounts a disturbing incident that turns out to be a father’s very moving, loving effort to protect his daughter. Mack’s failure to appreciate the whaler’s actions -- really just the straw breaking the camel’s back as the pair get to know each other -- leaves Sian stoically facing the world alone:

“She wondered how much older he might need to be, how much he might need to live through, before Time weathered him into the right man for her -- counselling herself that he was sure to have found somebody else by then.”

The book’s other heroines similarly face the world alone. In the title story, a weary soprano named Catherine, trapped in a Belgian chateau as her vocal quintet prepares for a performance, awakens from a fog of antidepressants to come to terms with her sheltered life and her pragmatic husband, Roger, the quintet’s leader.


“The Fahrenheit Twins” offers a brother-and-sister version of Adam and Eve, with their loss of innocence prompted by the death of their mother. Studying a primitive tribe on a remote Arctic island, the Fahrenheit parents “were monarchs here, and their two children prince and princess” -- and yet the girl, Tainto’lilith, seeing that their father has already taken a new mate into the house, realizes that she and her brother must leave to make a new home for themselves.

Such bald summaries don’t do justice to the lessons we learn about musical composition or the value of a compass in a landscape of monotonous tundra or to Faber’s limpid, eloquent style, which wonderfully describes the difficulties of life, as in this example on the trials of being an archeologist:

“Fourteen living bodies, scratching in the ground for the subtle remains of dead ones, peering at gradations in soil colour that could signal the vanished presence of a coffin or a pelvis, winkling pale fragments into the light which could, please God, be teeth.”

Faber has an affinity for the dust, for the earth, that seems almost biblical. Reading “The Courage Consort,” in fact, one is reminded of the creation of man and woman by God. Not the Genesis version, but visionary poet William Blake’s: He thought that male and female were created when a heavenly being split in two. As Faber suggests, the division was anything but equal.


Nick Owchar is acting deputy editor of Book Review.