What Red Was review: A strong debut by an incredibly young author
Small quibbles aside, Rosie Price has written a confident and provocative novel
Rosie Price’s debut is a study of wealth, sexual violence and complicated friendships.
What Red Was
A young, disadvantaged naïf falls under the spell of a wealthy, charismatic charmer and, to the exclusion of her own family, is quickly embraced by his. Treating her as one of their own, she chooses to ignore their incestuous relationships and the fact that they’ll do whatever it takes to protect their own interests and status. No, this isn’t Harry and Meghan: A Love Story, but a familiar trope in fiction, from Charles Ryder and the Flytes in Brideshead Revisited, to Leo Colston and the Maudsleys in The Go-Between, to Nick Guest and the Feddens in The Line of Beauty. In her debut novel, twenty-six-year-old author Rosie Price has embraced this motif but made it her own, producing a confident and provocative study of wealth, sexual violence and complicated friendships.
The novel opens with the first meeting of students Kate and Max during their opening weeks at university. Max is cute and likeable while Kate is more reserved but they hit it off immediately and become best friends, enjoying a curiously sexless relationship that continues throughout college and beyond. Max is the scion of a wealthy London family, his father a surgeon, his mother a film director, with a gaggle of uncles and cousins who are equally accomplished .
Engaging and assured
From the start the writing is engaging and assured and if the Rippons seem too good to be true, Kate nevertheless enjoys their company, having previously lived a rather solitary home life. Her surrogate family are all hearty, champagne-swilling bon vivants, and perhaps this is something she’s longed for in her life. But lurking behind the affability is a sense that something terrible will happen to her in their company and eventually it does when, at a birthday party, she is raped.
Always a difficult scene to write, Price handles it well. The perpetrator teases and cajoles, moving his victim towards a place where, despite saying no, she finds herself unable to fight back. “That was when she closed her eyes. That was the moment at which she shut off her mind, leaving her body to him.” Afterwards, maintaining the illusion that this was a consensual encounter, her attacker gives himself away by unconsciously admitting that what he did was a criminal act. “You say no, because you like saying no,” he tells her. “But I see through you. I can see through it all.” Clearly, the only thing he can’t see is the meaning of the word no.
This is not a novel concerned with bringing a rapist to justice or destroying the smug insouciance of a privileged family. It’s more interested in how Kate, the victim, deals with her assault. She tells no one for a long time and even when she gradually opens up to one or two close friends, including Max, she refuses to name her attacker.
The strength of the book lies in Price’s ability to delve deep into Kate’s mental anguish in the months that follow. She gets on with her life, starts to build a career, but it’s never far from her thoughts, leading to panic attacks and self-harm. She lives in dread of encountering her rapist again, not because she fears another attack but because she’s walking a tightrope, aware that a single confrontation might send her tumbling to the ground.
The novel is not flawless. Although he’s central to the action, Max is a little underwritten. Despite his good looks and charm, he comes across as rather asexual, expressing an interest in neither men or women, and in the early section of the book, it’s difficult to believe that this inseparable pair can go through four years of university together, often sharing a bed, while remaining entirely chaste. When Kate forms a relationship with a man from work, there’s not even a touch of jealousy on his part. He’s a bit like that tedious stock character from romantic comedies, the gay best friend, with no sexual needs of his own. Similarly, there’s an ongoing bit of business about a family home that’s falling into disrepair but perhaps this represents the erosion of the extended Rippons. When Kate goes there towards the end of the book, to return to my opening analogy, one can almost see Charles Ryder glancing wistfully across the fields towards Brideshead and thinking I have been here before.
Small quibbles aside, this is a strong debut by an incredibly young author, an assured and challenging novel that suggests an incipient talent worthy of notice.
John Boyne’s latest novel My Brother’s Name is Jessica (Puffin)