What Red Was: A Novel

  • By Rosie Price
  • Hogarth
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Holly Sneeringer
  • September 26, 2019

This raw, imperfect exploration of friendship and trauma exposes human enigmas.

What Red Was: A Novel

This is a novel about friendship. A friendship between a young woman and a young man who meet in college and become extremely close. So close, perhaps, that expectations arise which ultimately cannot be met.

When Kate Quaile and Max Rippon help each other through the homesickness and hangovers of their early days on campus, they form a bond that carries them over the next several years, into adulthood and through events that test the strength of their relationship, as well as their individual resolve. 

This is also a novel about sexual violation and how these aggressive acts transcend the act itself, how they have the power to change a person inwardly and outwardly, certainly disrupt, and possibly destroy. 

The subject that author Rosie Price has chosen for her first novel, What Red Was, is timely and tricky. Yet, an unexpected pairing of themes — friendship and violence — sets this story apart. And so does the manner in which it is told. There is nothing sentimental about the narrative: Price has given us an unflinching, unromantic story in clear and uncomplicated prose.

There are no writerly gimmicks or tricks here. There really isn’t a subtext to speak of, either. What we’re offered instead is an exploration of the complexities of human behavior and suffering examined with depth, honesty, and sadness.  

In conventional, chronological style, we learn about Kate and Max. Kate’s home life is strikingly different from Max’s. She is the only child of a single mother with a drinking problem who finds recovery and peace living a simple life as an artist.

Up the road in the Bisley estate, Max’s extended family gathers in his grandparents’ house of luxury and privilege. When Max is not there, he is in London, where his parents live a rather charmed life with Max’s younger sister. It is there, in London, where a tragic event occurs that changes the course of Kate’s — and eventually Max’s — life. 

Price builds tension slowly and steadily. At first, the tension has to do with Max and Kate’s relationship (Will it turn romantic? Will it endure the fundamental differences in their upbringings?). Then it shifts to family issues when Max’s grandmother dies, and the estate must be sold. Finally, the tension builds around Kate’s assault and her attacker’s identity. 

Scenes are strung together effortlessly, and emotions are rendered so convincingly that, at times, this novel is difficult to read. Private and intimate acts are portrayed like close-ups in a movie. In fact, they are very much like the close-ups about rape that Max’s mother, a filmmaker, writes and produces. And Kate’s inevitable breakdown and acts of self-harm are so realistic that I felt like I was going through her ordeal myself.

What I found to be problematic were the scattered point-of-view shifts into the attacker’s mind — likely the author’s attempt to give us more than a one-dimensional, monster-type character. She was unable to pull it off.   

If there is an uneasiness in reading this novel, it is a deliberate and effective one. What might also be deliberate is what’s missing: warmth and genuine human connection:

“It was not the attack in isolation, but what it did afterwards: the way it shattered perception, distorted senses, disabled the ability to trust and love and be loved, drained the word of colour and light.”

Kate can no longer feel any of these things, and Price places readers in her heroine’s same bleak mental space — one powerful example is when Kate begins healing and forces herself to relive the attack in order to “recover that part of herself that she had left there.” It’s a tough space to occupy.

When the truth about the perpetrator comes out and Kate’s unbearable suffering is finally shared, readers are confronted with some open questions about trauma: Who carries the burden of pain? And what, exactly, does the “red” from the book’s title signify? Blood? Rage? A beating heart? 

What Eudora Welty wrote about fiction holds true for this remarkable, raw novel: “There is absolutely everything in Great fiction but a clear answer.” 

But great fiction also transcends time and place, and while we are currently living in a world of the confessional and the real and the autobiographical (think social media and reality TV), only time will tell if this story stays with us. 

Holly Sneeringer has an MFA from Goucher College, as well as an MS in professional writing from Towson University. Her work has appeared in various places, including the Gettysburg Review, the Los Angeles Review, and the St. Ann’s Review, and has been the recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Award and Goucher College’s Chris White Award. Sneeringer has taught writing at Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her essays on home and garden can be found at elegentcountrystyle.com.

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