Source: Review copy
Publication: 9TH May 2019 from Harvill Secker
‘Kate Quaile,’ he said. ‘I like your name.’
Kate frowned. ‘How do you know my name?’
Throughout their four years at university, Kate and Max are inseparable. For him, she breaks her solitude; for her, he leaves his busy circles behind. But loving Max means knowing his family, the wealthy Rippons, all generosity, social ease and quiet repression. Theirs is not Kate’s world. At their London home, just after graduation, her life is shattered apart in a bedroom while a party goes on downstairs.
What Red Was explores the effects of trauma on mind and body, the tyrannies of memory, the sacrifices involved in staying silent, the courage of a young woman in speaking out. And when Kate does, this question: whose story is it now?
What Red Was is one of those books I picked up with no knowledge and no expectations. Immediately I was drawn to the clear, cool, quality of Rosie Price’s writing which carries an assured feel that belies her young age.
This is the story of an unequal relationship between first year University student, Kate and fellow student Max who bond over their love of films. Kate comes from a modest single parent family; Max has a privileged, somewhat flamboyant background. Max’s mother, Zara, is a well-known film director and the extended family, though somewhat dysfunctional is still living a life of entitlement.
Kate and Max are close; their bond is strong and though they are not lovers, they are as close as they can be. Kate is welcomed into Max’s family with open arms and she is entranced by Zara, from whom she hopes may learn skills that will help her in her aim to enter film production.
Somewhat distant from her own mother, Kate sees Zara as a figure to admire and look up to.
Then one day, whilst visiting Max at his family home for party, Kate is subjected to a violent sexual assault. She is raped and by someone from the family.
The rape is not gratuitously told, but it is clear and harsh and completely calculating. The rest of the story is Kate’s reaction to the rape and how she, at first, tells no-one but tries to carry on with her life.
This makes Kate’s story all the more heart-breaking, because you can feel Kate’s desperation to have her secret discovered, without actually having to verbalise the words. It’s as if she wants so badly to tell someone but she feels powerless to do so.
What follows is the disintegration of a young intelligent woman whose life unravels as she tries and fails to make sense of her own experience. While she will find the courage to verbalise what has happened to her, those she initially tells will try to help her, though none will explicitly suggest that she seeks to prosecute the offender, for reasons of their own.
So Kate struggles and withdraws and suffers the kind of internal grief that can come to no good. Kate is diminished, uncertain and works hard to restore her own sense of self and worth. Her relationship with Max becomes more distant and though Max instinctively knows that all is not right with Kate, the fact that he does not act or ask her outright is suggestive of his being fearful that he will learn the truth.
Max has his own demons, his friendship with Elias is leading him into substance abuse and his family’s bohemian attitudes do nothing to inhibit his excesses.
So why did I like this book so much? The subject matter is not what I would normally choose to read, but the clarity of the writing; the depth of characterisation and the exquisite observation of how powerlessness and rage can play themselves out with quiet dignity is both startling and profound. There is also an interesting dynamic at work between Max, Zara and Kate that revolves around power and its abuse and how Kate reacts to that.
The impact of Kate’s experience and how she finds her way back from it with an increased sense of self and more empowerment is a powerful story that is clearly not one to be emulated, but still leaves a lasting impression.
Verdict: Beautifully written, raw and visceral, this is an elegantly expressed book that will keep me thinking long after I close the final pages.
Rosie Price is 26 years old and grew up in Gloucestershire where What Red Was is partly set. After reading English at Cambridge she worked as an assistant at a literary agency before leaving to focus on her own writing. She now lives in London. WHAT RED WAS is her debut novel.