What Red Was by Rosie Price

At the start of Rosie Price's novel What Red Was, Kate meets Max Rippon in her first week at an elite university when he knocks on the door of her room at dawn wearing only a towel. The two immediately become  best friends, and Kate soon finds herself not only inseparable from Max but also fascinated by his wealthy, privileged upper class family. Max is in many ways the Sebastian Flyte to Kate's Charles Ryder, to the point where she'd rather spend the holidays with him and the Rippons than at her own home, where she and her mother live alone. But one night Kate goes to a party at the Rippons' London house, and something terrible happens that colours every aspect of Kate's life from that point on.

Although the blurb on the back of the book doesn't mention what this incident is, I'm going to risk being accused of plot spoilers and reveal that Kate is raped. I'm revealing this because, given the nature of the event and the unflinching description of it, I think it's bordering on irresponsible that the publisher chose not to. It happens early on in the book and it shapes the rest of the story, so I can't see that referring to it on the back cover would have been a problem. In any case - if this is a subject that might trigger a particularly distressing response for you, I think you need to be aware of this in order to decide whether you want to read a) the book and b) this review.

Following the attack, the rest of the book deals primarily with Kate's attempts to deal with both the lasting trauma of the experience and the possibility that talking about it might tear apart the family of her best friend. The psychological aftermath of the rape, which at times threatens to overwhelm Kate completely, felt very convincing to me, as did the moments where her attempts to hint at what happened, practically willing someone to encourage her to reveal it, go unnoticed - a busy pharmacist doesn't pick up on Kate's linguistic cues, for example, during a consultation about the morning-after pill.

It's interesting that a book that has such an intense and deeply personal experience in the form of the assault on Kate as its pivotal moment is not told entirely from her perspective - far from it. The point of view changes frequently between Kate, Max and various members of his family, and their quiet, largely unspoken dysfunction forms substantial chunks of the narrative. For example, there's the relationship between Max's father William, a surgeon, and his brothers - the materialistic businessman Alasdair and misfit Rupert, who grapples with alcoholism and depression. They all have different ideas about what to do with the property they inherit from their overbearing, narcissistic mother when she dies, and Rupert's mental health is, while not ignored, often downplayed. Rosie Price pulls off quite a feat in managing to get inside the head of every character, and I enjoyed seeing something of their inner lives as well as Kate's.

Although What Red Was is impressive in its exploration of power, privilege, misogyny and trauma, and Rosie Price's prose is notably accomplished, there were things about it that I didn't like. Perhaps most importantly, I simply didn't remotely believe in the relationship between Kate and Max. It's an intense friendship - although there are passing references to them socialising with separate groups, they seem to have barely any other significant friends in their lives for most of the novel - and it's hard to see exactly why these two people would be so drawn to each other, particularly in an entirely platonic way. Of course, it's perfectly possible for men and women to be best friends: I just couldn't quite see why these two in particular would be. Max remarks at one point that he loves Kate more than any of his girlfriends and they also share a bed on a number of occasions, so while I completely understand that they might not want a sexual relationship, it's hard to believe it would never come up as a topic of conversation between them, or even be something they would ponder internally. They don't seem to have a great deal in common and in real life, I am fully convinced that Max would think Kate was provincial and dull and Kate would think Max was a spoilt rich-boy brat.

I also found some of the other characters lacking, particularly those who aren't central to the story but still play enough of a role in the narrative for the reader notice if they aren't up to scratch. Kate's attacker is composite of stereotypes and yes, while it's plausible that someone like him would be a rapist, it felt like lazy writing to me to make him and his motives so obvious and there would have an additional power to the story if he'd perhaps been someone less transparent - if you read a list of pen-portraits of each character, you would instantly know which one was going to be the rapist. There are also times when the novel drags and feels repetitive and other times when quite major events are skipped over in a single sentence, which is quite jarring.

So, while I think some of the praise heaped upon this book is absolutely justified, I think it falls short in some regards and I think it suffers a little from being largely about characters who for all their emotional baggage, are incredibly wealthy and seem breezily entitled. Even Kate, who is supposed to be the 'normal' one, comes across as being terribly middle-class to me and relatively privileged - she's the child of a single mum and lives in an ordinary house which, it's pointed out, is an ex-council property, but ultimately she's still a pretty, well-educated white woman who goes to a prestigious university, takes a year abroad studying at the Sorbonne and decides upon film-making as a career, while her mother appears to devote her time to pottery. There's the notion that she is out of place in Max's world, but to me she seemed to fit right in.

That said, What Red Was is still a strong debut about a difficult subject, and I hope to read a second novel by Rosie Price soon in which some of the flaws of What Red Was have been ironed out.