Review: ‘What Red Was’

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TW: this article discusses sexual assault and violence.

When the first lockdown began in March of 2020, I began reading fiction to try and get myself into reading for fun again.  I read a good number of books, but the standout was decidedly Rosie Price’s debut, What Red Was.

What Red Was is an impressively successful debut. It has been held in high esteem by the likes of Elle, The Guardian and award-winning journalist Dolly Alderton, despite only being released in May 2019. It tackles some difficult themes but in such a smooth way, and deeply explores the varying mental health effects after a traumatic incident. While very different to the plot of Normal People, fans of Sally Rooney may enjoy Price’s modern and refreshing writing style, as well as the issues explored and the close relationship between the two main characters. From the first chapter you are hooked, and it’s so hard to put down. I think I read the entire thing in three days, which is quite rare for me! 

Modern and refreshing

At the start, we are introduced to Kate, a fresher starting out at university who is anxious to have new experiences away from her troubled home life in the countryside and make new friends. She meets Max, a rich boy from London, who shares her passion for language and cinema.  They soon become firm friends and Kate is quickly integrated into Max’s wealthy and influential family. But after following their adventures together for some time, Kate’s life is abruptly interrupted and torn apart when she is raped by a member of Max’s family. The rest of the novel watches her closely as she tries to come to terms with what has happened and tries to figure out how to move on.

Trying to put the pieces of her life back together, Kate embarks on a journey of sadness, frustration, guilt and shame. One of the central themes of this book is mental health, and dealing with life after trauma. Price gives an intricately detailed narrative of Kate’s thoughts and feelings as she traverses down this new path in her life. One of the best aspects of the novel is the empathy one feels for the characters involved: the great descriptions and relatable non-sugar-coated moments allow us to really connect with Kate and bring a whole new level of understanding for the reader about the feelings of survivors of sexual assault and how the effects of this one moment can continue to be forever present and overbearing. In the modern context, when sexual violence affects so many different people, often in long-lasting ways, it’s important we talk about it openly.

We also get to see Max’s feelings towards the incident, which is a novel and interesting narrative that I feel a lot of other authors would have glossed over. Max, strewn with guilt about his best friend being raped and with this guilt exacerbated by the identity of the rapist, encounters his own problems after the event. He falls into a depressive state and resorts to drugs and alcohol. I found it really engaging to read about his experience and contrast it with Kate’s as the plot progressed. It also adds another perspective to the novel and encourages readers to think more widely about who is affected, even indirectly, by traumatic events such as rape.

Overall engaging, understandable, and haunting

To add a slightly lighter side to this novel, Price also deals with the theme of friendship. She shows how some relationships can be strengthened by a traumatic event such as this while others can be lost entirely. This adds another dimension to how the reader thinks about the effects of rape, but also provides a heartwarming element to the story and allows us to connect further with the main characters, making it an overall engaging, understandable and haunting novel, all at the same time.

So, if you are looking for a gripping yet thought-provoking read which will have you hooked from the first page, look no further than What Red Was. I hope you will love it every bit as much as I did.

Image: Sincerely Media via Unsplash

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