Faber's novel traces the relationships of an erudite and cunning young prostitute named Sugar with her wealthy bumbler of a lover William Rackham and his child-like wife Agnes in 1870s London. It has such a magnetic and repulsive atmosphere, full of the smell of sweaty bodies in unwashed clothing and chamber pots and consumptive blood on handkerchiefs and cold, unaired rooms with dark wallpaper. The life of a Victorian prostitute in this book is brutally pragmatic. One of the first scenes is a voyeuristic glimpse into the douching regime of Sugar's friend Caroline. And later, as Sugar is bathing:
A crucial hairpin gives way; the remainder of her waist-length hair threatens to unfurl into the tepid water. Shivering, she rises, standing above the froth, hands on her thighs. And, at long last, she is able to release the residue of urine, trifling but painful, that wouldn't come out earlier, before her bath. The yellow droplets patter down on the suds, writing dark nonsense into the white of the soap-scum. Is it only piddle draining out of her now? Could there really be anything else left in there? Sometimes she has walked along the street, a full half-hour after a wash, and suddenly felt a gush of semen soiling her underclothes. What could God, or the Force of Nature, or whatever is supposed to be holding the Universe together, possibly have in mind, by making it so difficult to be clean inside? What, in the grand scheme of things, is so uniquely precious about piss, shit or the makings of another pompous little man, that it should be permitted to cling to her innards so tenaciously?
'God damn God,' she whispers, tensing and untensing her pelvic muscles, 'and all His horrible filthy creation.'"