Ooooohhhh … I really salivate when I see there’s a new Christina Henry novel out! And could I have read anything more topical right now?
In the same way that Ms. Henry took the Alice in Wonderland stories and reset them in a darker world using different (but recognizable characters) and retold the action and themes of the story, she has taken on the grim fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood.
The world is in the middle of a pandemic and Cordelia, who never goes by the name Cordelia but prefers to be called ‘Red’ for the red jacket that she wears constantly, and her family have chosen to avoid going to the government ‘camps’ (set up to protect the people, of course) and are going to head out to Red’s grandmother’s place – a remote home in the woods, sheltered from much of the current pandemic. It won’t be easy … driving would make them obvious targets, but Red’s mom and dad are concerned about the walk because Cordelia is handicapped with a false leg (a childhood injury). But before they strike out, Red’s mother comes down with ‘the cough’ and then one of the roving gangs comes to the house to have a little ‘fun’ with the family just because they are black. Mom and dad promise to hold the gang off as long as possible so that Red and her brother Adam can make their escape and get to their grandmother’s house, making them promise not to leave each other.
Red and Adam, quarreling constantly (they are siblings, about the same age) sneak into towns, trying to find food and other supplies that they can use on their journey. But such resources are harder and harder to find as gangs and militia units have formed to make a steady sweep of communities to clear them of food.
In one gas station mart, Adam and Red discover the body of, presumably, the shop owner. Finding bodies isn’t all that unusual for the pair, but this particular body has a hole in chest, from the inside to out, and slithering blood stains on the floor around him. Just what they need … another thing to worry about. But while Adam immediately thinks about the movie Alien, Red is convinced that there’s a logical explanation and nothing to worry about.
A little further on, Red and Adam are caught by a military group when the siblings try to clear supplies from a big box store. The leader of the group interviews the pair and ‘take a blood sample’ – though Red doesn’t buy it. She does learn, however, that there is indeed something insidious, something government sanctioned, causing the holes in peoples’ chests.
She learns this too late to save Adam, and Red is on her own until she runs into a pair of children, siblings, like she and Adam, but much younger. Out of concern for the youngsters, she convinces them that they’d be better off walking with her to her grandmother’s house (they had no goal other than to stay away from the gangs).
There really is so much going on in this novel.
First off, I read this while self-quarantined due to the COVID-19 corona virus, so the background for this story – a virus that has had a deadly affect on the country – was amazingly topical. And while the fact that Red and her family were African-American wasn’t central to the story, it was there and of course my time in quarantine corresponds with the death of African-American, George Floyd while being restrained by police.
So…we have a devastating virus. Some people get it, some don’t, and the Government (capital ‘G’) is trying to lock people away in camps. We have hometown gangs running rampant. We take a step up from gangs to non-official militia groups who are reportedly kidnapping women to be their slaves while they raid and loot. And we have the military, trying to control the militia and secure civilians.
Among these groups we have only one good person and even with that, Red doesn’t trust him at first, though he proves himself worthy.
We also don’t meet many citizens – anyone not swallowed up by gang, militia, or military – not alive anyway, but the one we do meet turns out to be helpful.
I definitely get caught up in Henry’s writing. It is deliciously dark without being gross. Even the darkest moments, the descriptions of having to kill someone (in a kill or be killed situation) are handled quite well. It was fun to spot the parallels to the Red Riding Hood story (or at least what I remember of it) but I have to admit that I chuckled every time we were reminded that Red is walking through the forest on her way to grandmother’s house. And we were reminded of this a few times.
I did not need the creature coming out of the chest. It was brought in late in the book and didn’t add much to the story (and was left rather unresolved – this felt like a set-up for another book). I understand the analogy to the fairy tale (“the better to eat you with, my dear”) but there really was enough here to not have to go down that particular path (pun intended).
The book felt disjointed. There was so much focus on Red and Adam and staying together and scavenging supplies, and then they weren’t together and the focus was mostly just on getting to grandmother’s house, with the kids. There was danger mixed in (obstacles to overcome) – the rape gangs, the slaver militias, the big bad wolf, er, military, but each came in somewhat piecemeal with very little overlap.
This is the sort of book that feels good to read it – Henry’s writing is delicious – but upon reflection there isn’t a whole lot here and what is here feels like it belongs in a different story.
A book by Christina Henry is better than most, but this is not her strongest work.
Looking for a good book? If you like a dark spin on fairy tales, give Christina Henry’s The Girl in Red a read. It’s a fun take on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, but it may not make a last impression.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Girl in Red
author: Christina Henry
paperback, 293 pages