The Girl in Red (Christina Henry) – Review

“Her mother, who’d never read anything published later than 1900 and definitely did not think much of horror movies, had said genre fiction would rot her brain.”

Christina Henry has made a name for herself re-imagining the stories of characters from classic fairytales (The Mermaid) and children’s books (Alice, Red Queen, Lost Boy). She’s not the first author to do it, and she won’t be the last, but her feminist re-weaving of these tales is both accessible and competent, and her enjoyable fantasies – aimed at young adults and beyond – don’t always take the paths you might expect.

Henry’s latest novel, The Girl in Red, is loosely inspired by European fairytale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, the various versions of which are a staple of any collection of folktales. Its imagery – a girl in a red hood, a wolf, an axe, a grandmother – is eminently recognisable, and its symbolism and meaning have been interpreted and re-interpreted in many an academic text.

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The Girl in Red relocates the story to a parallel modern-day USA, where a few short months ago a sickness, a contagion, wiped out most of the population, leaving the country without power, means of communication, or local law enforcement. Government patrols are rounding up survivors and depositing them in enforced quarantine. But Red – a woman in her early twenties, raised comfortably in a well-educated family – doesn’t trust that the government have her best interests at heart, and sets out on a mission to reach her grandmother, hoping that they will both be safe in the relative wilds of rural North America.

It’s clear from the start that there won’t be any woodcutter or hunter coming to rescue her from peril. Red is the one with the axe, and the wolf – whatever form it takes – better look out. In this scenario, Red is both the potential victim and the protector. Since this is a post-modern take on the tale, Red is highly aware of how stories – and particularly apocalyptic stories – usually play out. She is a fan of horror movies, and of fantasy fiction (genre queen Robin McKinley is mentioned by name), and she seeks to avoid the dangers that stories have warned her about, whilst also acknowledging that she is not an action hero, or a comic book character, but merely a girl.

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And a pleasingly created girl too. Early on in the story we learn that she has a physical impairment, and uses a prosthetic lower leg. This is presented in a matter-of-fact way: it does not make her lesser, and it does not make her a superhero, but it can make certain things harder. At every step the book seeks to subvert preconceived notions of a fantasy heroine, also revealing Red as mixed-race, bisexual, keenly interested in facts and science – and most of all with a determination to survive at any cost. Some critics might call this ‘pandering’, or ‘political correctness gone mad’: some critics are wrong. What it is is representation. To say that a character being disabled, bi and mixed-race is unrealistic is to have lived a very sheltered life. Red is an enjoyable character to follow on a journey, and no doubt many readers will identify with her.

Its source material might be fantasy but The Girl in Red‘s post-apocalyptic setting should be immediately suggestive of horror. Where the wolf is in all of this, on the other hand, might take some time to realise. Christina Henry’s straightforward writing means that the story is relatively fast-moving and easy to read. The pacing only becomes problematic towards the end, when a diminishing supply of pages might leave the reader wondering if there is space for the story to be concluded properly. It is – fear not! – but if the ending is not wholly satisfying, it has more to do with the structure than the content.

Whilst being a completely different beast to last year’s The Mermaid, The Girl in Red is an enjoyable and disturbing excursion into the wilderness, that should appeal to fans of the fantasy-horror genre.

The Girl in Red will be available from June 18th from Titan Books.

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