I didn’t know anything about this book before my friend sent me a copy. She works for Vintage publishing and is always trying to give me cheap books from work. I know I know. First world problems. So, when I asked for a copy of Machines Like Me I wasn’t expecting a whole package of fun stuff. And by fun stuff, I mean a copy of Rosie Price’s book and some marketing material relating to it. Including a tote bag that my mother was extremely excited about. God knows why. I have more than my fair share of free tote bags. Don’t all women, particularly bookish women, have more tote bags than they could ever need? But do I ever have one with me when I need one? Of course I bloody don’t. That would require too much forward-thinking. But I digress. I decided that I would give this book a go once I’d finished the Ian McEwan. It sounded like an interesting read. About a horrible topic, obviously, but an interesting read. And Price’s debut had been receiving a lot of attention.
Kate Quaile meets Max Rippon during their first week of university. The two have lived very different lives but they become firm friends. Helping each other out during the stresses of exams and sharing their passions for film and travel. During Summer, Max invites Kate home and she is quickly taken with his family. Kate grew up with an alcoholic mother in a small council house. Max, whose parents are a doctor and film director respectively, has lived a pretty easy life in London. Kate is welcomed into the family and she gets swept up in the lifestyle. She spends as little time at home with her mother as possible; preferring to enjoy the warmth of the affluent Rippon family. Life is blissful.
Until, during a party at Max’s family home, Kate is sexually assaulted by someone he knows. she is left feeling helpless and alone. Unable to tell anyone what happened, Kate tries to act as if everything is normal. But, as she wrestles with the psychological aftermath, Kate decides that she can no longer face this alone. As soon as she starts opening up to people, she realises that her story is starting to be co-written by those around her. Their own issues come to light and affect how they respond to her experience. Even after seeking help, Kate struggles to keep going about her life. Suffering from panic attacks and a fear of encountering her attacker again, she takes back control by starting to self-harm. All the while, Max continues to abuse alcohol and drugs. Can their friendship survive?
I had high expectations for this novel. It certainly talked a good game. Obviously, the issue of sexual assault is an important one and something that a writer needs to be careful with. I think Rosie Price is incredibly insightful about the psychological trauma suffered by a victim of rape. The scenes in which Kate has sex for the first time after her attack were a stand-out. They were handled delicately but felt real. The association Kate felt between pleasure and pain was a tough thing to read but I think it will start a conversation. Price writes in a very assured and confident way. She gets into Kate’s mind and has the ability to really convey how she feels. To give some kind of insight into the mind of a rape survivor.
But, I also can’t help but think the rest of the novel kind of waters down the good bits. This book is such a cliche. It’s the kind of thing you’d find in a soap opera. A naive young girl gets swept away by the allure of a wealthy and free family. She finds herself out of depth and it changes her life forever. The Rippon family aren’t very well draw as far as I’m concerned. There is no real depth in any of the supporting characters. Price starts some supplementary stories about the sale of a family home, a depressed uncle, and Max’s addictions. However, none of them really go anywhere. It’s all just quite shallow. Even Max himself doesn’t feel like a real character. He turns up every now and then to say something pithy and that’s it. We learn nothing about him and you don’t really see why Kate stuck with him all those years.
And, if I’m honest, I have problems with Kate’s story as well. Do I think Price needed to depict the rape scene? No. Yes, she handles it fairly delicately considering but I definitely don’t see the point. It’s not as if she wrote in such a horrific way that it was meant to be provocative. It’s horrible, there’s no denying that, but it feels quite normal. If Price intended to push the envelope and start a conversation, then she’s gone wrong somewhere. Then there’s the aftermath. I can’t claim to know what goes through somebody’s head after they’ve experienced this but I was kind of hoping for something more from this book. Every story we read or see about rape shows the victim staying silent, suffer unimaginable psychological issues, and fall into a pit of self-harm. I’m not saying this isn’t accurate but isn’t it time we see a more positive reaction? I’m not trying to blame writers like Price for so people remaining silent but there is a tradition of portraying rape as a thing to hide. Don’t we need to see a survivor telling their family and finding the love and support they want? Obviously, there are no fairy tale endings here but maybe a bit of positivity?
And, whilst I would never say that this book glamourises self-harm, I don’t think it handles that aspect very well at all. We see Kate regret her actions but there is also that unmistakable moment where she feels a massive relief. Her boyfriend knows what she’s doing and lets it happen. Price isn’t exactly telling people to go out and start putting a knife to their tighs but she isn’t exactly condemning it either. This book tries to be a study of a woman’s mind after this event and I think it suffers. We don’t see examples of Kate receiving therapy and we don’t see it working. This novel is trying to avoid the easy answers that people would want, I get that. However, it also presents the idea that there is no escape from this. As we have seen so much lately, people can come out of this feeling strong. We’ve seen so many women come forward through #MeToo and face their attackers. They have survived and got help. It would have been nice to see Price include that in her narrative.
What Red Means starts as a very confident and well-written debut. It is entertaining and introduces us to a lot of ideas. Then it all starts to unravel. It falls into stereotype and very few of the issues are dealt with. This is a novel all about plot and the characters definitely suffer. I think Rosie Price will have a great career ahead of her but I don’t see this as the perfect debut that so many people have claimed it is. This doesn’t feel like a novel but more like propaganda. I realise that sounds more negative than I intended. Perhaps I should have said, like an essay that has been fleshed out with a few narratives? Obviously, the anti-rape message is an important one but I don’t think What Red Means is the right way to put that message across. It’s difficult to care for Kate as a character when she’s so clearly been drawn out of hyperbole.