There is a list. A deeply personal list people often keep to themselves of the ways men have terrified and humiliated them. Some of these lists are longer than others. Some are more violent. Some seem completely innocuous, defined by what older generations might quantify as “locker room talk.” I’m not a woman who takes risks. A Capricorn, I’m constantly weighing social situations against their paltry rewards, never very encouraged by my calculations. As a result, my list is quite tame, simply by virtue of staying in my house all the time. But still, the list exists, because there is no way to protect oneself from rape culture.
Kate Quaile, of Rosie Price’s debut novel What Red Was (Hogarth, 2019), likely has her own list by the novel’s open. But despite this list, she finds a deep and confiding friendship during her first year of university with Max Rippon, the son of a famous film director and a member of the uppercrust Rippon family. Their meeting is the novel’s inciting incident, its very first sentence connecting the two characters: “Kate was sleeping when he knocked on her door.” This first chapter, itself a master class in crafting a book’s beginning, in setting a series of inevitable events in motion, buzzes with all the promise and possibility of a college student’s first year, the rush of finding camaraderie among thousands of new strangers. Through their friendship, Price expertly navigates the tumultuous waters of privilege and wealth, sexual violence, the psychology of trauma, and even the idea of art as exploitation.
At first, Kate is fascinated with Max’s family, enamored by his filmmaker mother, Zara, and her critical darlings, which make Kate want to work in the film industry. She is dazzled by their excess, excited by the intricacies of their family drama, thrilled by her proximity to their privilege. Max’s family is kind—they appreciate Kate’s influence on the youngest Rippon, and for this they grant her almost unlimited access to their interior lives. She sleeps in their houses, she drinks their alcohol, she is invited to their parties. She distances herself from her working-class single mother, Allison, as she clings to Zara’s cool representation of motherhood. It isn’t long, however, before Kate is violated by a member of the Rippon family. In a stark, brutal scene devoid of euphemism, Kate is raped by Max’s cousin, Lewis. The prose, in this moment, is a camera lens that refuses to cut away. The reader is faced with Lewis’s fingers on Kate’s windpipe. With his “tendons and veins,” which bulge from the force of the act—the text itself is not afraid of the word “rape,” as humans so often are. But unlike a camera lens, the prose offers internality. It presents to us Kate’s pain. It tells us of the liquid terror within her which keeps her silent and compliant: “She could have bit down, then, on his fingers. Bite down. Move away. Scream. But instead she closed her lips and not her teeth…. That was when she closed her eyes. That was the moment at which she shut off her mind, leaving her body to him. Locked out, shut down.”
Every moment following this scene, which comes in the first fourth of the novel, is an “after”: “There was only the raped and the un-raped.” Kate no longer knows how to exist within her body. She no longer knows how to exist around the people she loves, the people who claim to love her. She exists, at night, in “a state of immobilized terror, while in the day she [is] restless, exhausted.” Though Kate takes heavily to alcohol as a form of self-medication, and though she lets her aspirations for film school fall to the wayside, Max, her closest friend, is blind to Kate’s inner turmoil. What Red Was explores the inheritance of silence, willful ignorance, and the often stunted emotional intelligence of men that can lead to these kinds of relational shortcomings. Max’s deepest trauma is the death of his grandmother, an event which leads to a short period of sadness, isolation, and self-medication. But Max, with his wealth and his maleness, can disappear with little consequence into hard liquor, cocaine, unemployment, and the irresponsible partying nature of his friendships with other men. His refusal to confront the suffering and dysfunction in his own family creates a man ill-equipped to support other loved ones. Max does not become a “bad” man. He does not become an aggressive, violent man. But neither does he become a “good” man, whatever this designation might entail. He fails Kate, and his family, again and again, and it is this sad, habitual failure that defines so much lack of trust across gender lines when it comes to confiding about matters of sexual assault, both in this book and in the real world. And yet, these failures do not end up negatively altering his future. His friendship with Kate will become a footnote in the biography of his life, one that will continue to flourish with privilege, wealth, and success.
Price is careful not to present a monolithic view of rape survivors and their psychology. Kate confides in Zara a few months after her rape, keeping the rapist’s identity to herself, affording Zara the opportunity to “come out,” as it were, as a fellow survivor. They share a moment of intimacy that women often keep concealed from men: “Nobody had ever said anything about this third rite of passage, somewhere between virginity and motherhood; but there it was, as ugly as it was undeniable: the first rape.” In this scene, Zara is poised, she is kind. She says almost all of the things a survivor might want or need to hear. But Zara is not who her carefully curated appearance and speech suggest. Her dialogue does remarkable work, Price letting no sentence, no word, go to waste. On the surface, Zara’s dialogue provides kind aphorisms delivered by way of overly-verbose witticisms. Beneath their aristocratic veneer, however, Zara’s words throughout the novel present a defense mechanism against plumbing the depths of her own emotion, her own trauma. Zara, retraumatized by Kate’s admission, is revealed as barely held together, decades after her own rape.
Zara’s attempts to control her own narrative of rape manifest in her attempts to control Kate’s narrative. The novel explores the similarities and differences in the two women’s exhibitions of Rape Trauma Syndrome, a post-traumatic stress disorder specific to sexual assault survivors. And though Zara tries to be a rock for Kate, to be the affirming and helpful presence she herself was never exposed to, her re-traumatization soon turns Kate into a source of shame and obsession, eventually co-opting details of Kate’s assault for her own creative purposes. This is Price asking her readers, “To whom do these narratives belong?” Do Kate and Zara share the same story simply because they share a similar trauma? And can one survivor’s art speak for all survivors? Or does this wrest even more agency from a person who has already had her bodily autonomy and safety ripped away?
What Red Was is a dazzling debut for Rosie Price. Already finely attuned to the sometimes dark and complicated nuances of human behavior and emotion, Price is sure to continue focusing the lens of her camera on life’s rawest and most honest moments. She will do so with care and nuance and love. There is no happy ending for Price’s Kate Quaile. There is only the balancing act of joy and pain that is survival. There is only each new day, splendid, traumatic. The only sure thing is that these days will keep coming, and Price’s rapt new audience will continue looking for her next triumph.