What Red Was by Rosie Price
Published by Harvill Secker, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This nuanced exploration of sexual assault and the resulting trauma manages to completely avoid the trap of salaciousness. It is in this understated and honest approach that the book’s true power lies. The story begins by showing the wonderful friendship that blossoms between Kate and Max throughout their years at university and beyond. The two are inseparable and unwaveringly honest with each other. When Kate is raped at a party by someone in Max’s inner circle, however, she must face not only the physical and mental implications of her attack, but a near impossible question: Should she tell Max the truth, and risk losing their friendship?
The friendship between Kate and Max is one of the most convincing and endearing that I’ve come across in fiction. The dynamic and chemistry between them is fantastic, and not once does Price cheapen its validity by questioning the entirely platonic nature of their relationship. It makes Kate’s dilemma following the assault all the more painful to watch unfold. It’s incredibly poignant to see Kate selflessly carry the burden of her secret alone, seeing it as an attempt to protect Max from a truth she knows will hurt him, potentially derailing their friendship.
The supporting characters are well developed and interesting in their own right. Through them, Price explores the notion that we are all dealing with our own private traumas, and the toxicity that can arise when we internalise that pain or turn to unhealthy vices for escape. She also touches on class divides. With Max’s mother, Zara, being a respected film director, he comes from a considerably wealthier background than Kate, and we soon see the privileges this has afforded his family – even if it hasn’t necessarily brought them happiness.
Throughout Kate’s attempts to understand and open up about what has happened to her, Price offers unflinching insight into the ramifications of rape, with major trigger warnings here for the likes of PTSD and self-harm. She shows us that rapists can come in many forms; that language and perspective can be used to try and warp the truth; and the frustration that can arise when the scars left by an assault are not outwardly discernible. Through Kate and Zara, however, she also explores the role that art can play in facing up to and processing trauma.
As much as I love a lot of what this book has to say, and how intelligently it says it, there were a couple of stumbling blocks right at the end that stopped me from giving it the full five stars. Being wary of spoilers, Kate presents a viewpoint in the final chapter, the wording of which I found very problematic. It was understandable given everything she’d been through, but for it to be presented as though the conclusion of her journey, rather than a mindset that could be challenged and overcome, left me feeling a little uncomfortable. I also felt that a few too many questions were left unanswered. Whilst deliberate to some extent, reflecting the idea that real stories don’t wrap up neatly, the lack of closure on certain key points was still frustrating from a narrative standpoint.
It’s a shame the book ended on a slightly negative note for me. I don’t want that to detract from the fantastic achievement this book is overall. It offers one of the most developed, thoughtful, frank, and important commentaries on sexual violence and coping with trauma that I’ve ever read.
If you’d like to read What Red Was, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!