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What Red Was by Rosie Price review – outstanding debut novel

What Red Was by Rosie Price review – outstanding debut novel
Emotional intelligence: Rosie Price. Photograph: Sophia Evans/the Observer

Occasionally a debut novel arrives that is so assured, so confident in its voice, so skilful in its plotting and characterisation that it seems like the work of a seasoned author. Rosie Price’s What Red Wasintroduces an exciting new voice to fiction.

At the novel’s outset we meet Kate and Max during their first term at university, when a close platonic friendship is formed between the pair. Kate is from a single-parent family: her mother, Alison, is a recovering alcoholic, and Kate finds time spent at the small family home cloying and claustrophobic. Max, by contrast, comes from a wealthy and extended metropolitan family who congregate in his grandmother’s country home. The house is like “the setting of one of those depressingly English postwar films in which soldiers return from the battlefield to the homes of their wealthy families to drink tea and repress their trauma”.

Max’s father is one of three middle-aged brothers – one in a passionless marriage, one divorced and one single – and together with Max’s sister, their mother, his cousin and his grandmother, they convene for high days and holidays amid an atmosphere of barely contained resentments, rivalries and rage, all of which Price captures with acuity and deft humour.

After Kate is subjected to a horrific sexual attack in Max’s family home, Price conveys the brutal psychological aftermath. We see Kate’s faltering attempts to confide in those around her, and how each of those she does tell bring their own issues to bear on her story.

Addiction is a common theme. Rupert, Max’s uncle, is an alcoholic, and in the extended family’s overbearing and infantilising concern for him, Price shows their collective need to project their own neuroses and sociopathies on to him. For Kate, alcohol provides amnesia to her trauma; for Max it numbs him to his family’s dysfunction and his own lack of direction.

Max also uses drugs, while his uncle and cousin are both chronic overeaters. Kate, meanwhile, turns to physical self-harm: “She pressed down on the glass, pushing it through the soft skin of her thigh, dragging it in a swift line… Only when blood began to bead on the glass’s sharp edge did she exhale.”

There are several themes at play in What Red Was: sexual abuse, inherited trauma, emotional repression, family dysfunction, grief, disappointment, class… Narratives are cleverly interwoven to create a richly textured whole. The writing is polished, wise and possessed of remarkable emotional intelligence. Price is just 26; I cannot wait to see what she produces next.

• What Red Was by Rosie Priceis published by Harvill Secker (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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