The Girl in Red by Christina Henry
review by: Lucy Powell
A fairytale, but not as you know it. An intriguing take on the classic Grimm fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood”, this new novel by Christina Henry is bloody and gripping in equal measure. Whilst the original fairytale is one strewn with darkness, with various tellings of it emphasising or muting the gore, Henry’s narrative delves even deeper, drawing out the potential for abject horror like poison from a grizzly wound, and shapes it into a post-apocalyptic disaster narrative.
We follow Red, the protagonist of the novel. Named “Cordelia” after her mother’s love of Shakespeare, she has a bright red hoodie and is on the way to her grandmother’s house. That much, as people at all familiar with the Red Riding Hood story, we already know. But what makes her portrayal refreshing is that Henry depicts her as a disabled person-of-colour, exploring the prejudice that both bring, even in a society in total collapse. Indeed, as Red walks, treading a fraught and frightening path through the woods and beyond, we are exposed to more of what has happened to bring her there through flashbacks. These nudge the narrative ever closer to the precipice between “real life” apocalypse horror, and sci-fi reminiscent of Alien or Stranger Things. A nasty scene early on in the novel where she guts a man with an axe promptly makes you aware of what kind of novel you are reading.
Middle America, indeed most of the USA as far as one can tell, is a bleak apocalyptic landscape, with its inhabitants ravaged by an illness for which there is no cure. But the shadow cast by this illness is a darker one, and not – as one would imagine – everything that it seems. Red, and those she travels with, find out more in a painstaking accumulation of tension that is only relieved in the last quarter or so of the novel. Even so, despite the relief, you are gripped with a curiosity about the wider world that, for all its world-building, Henry doesn’t quite manage to answer.
The “twist” of the novel is perhaps too jarring for a story that builds itself up to be a more realistic disaster apocalypse novel. Red is a character who constantly reminds herself of the realities of the danger, comparing her actions as separate to those of apocalyptic video games or novels, and so the direction Henry chooses to take with the twist proves to be not as satisfying. Whilst well-written, with an engaging protagonist, the novel seems to straddle two different genres that don’t mesh as perfectly as one might like.
Indeed, whilst the apocalyptic plot is familiar, as is the fairytale, I found myself looking for direct comparisons to draw between this narrative retelling and the original tale. The wolf-character, the stalking, vicious, and sometimes charismatic figure to Little Red Riding Hood, is hard to place. Is it the roving bands of militia? The bloodied footprints and dead bodies? The idea that other people in this story are “the wolf”, or the fact that this well-known threat is not immediately clear, is one which places a seed of doubt into an otherwise clean ending, reminding the reader that danger is never really far away. A clever, if albeit, weaker ending to a strong, vibrant plot, this novel is still worth reading for fans of “dark” fairy tales and apocalyptic works alike.