TW/CW: Murder, graphic violence, racism, ableist language, mentions of rape and sexual assault.
The Girl in Red by Christina Henry is the latest addition in her gritty fairy tale retellings. They aren’t part of a connected series, but Henry has done retellings of Alice in Wonderland, The Little Mermaid, and Peter Pan. This one retells Little Red Riding Hood where a young woman tries to get to her grandmother’s house following an outbreak of deadly pandemic.
It’s dark, character driven, and full of fucked up-ness in the best way. However, Red is the focus and if you’re the type of reader who wants to know all the answers, you might be left disappointed. I’ll spoil it right now and tell you that:
Let me first address the context of some of the content warnings above. Red is a biracial, bisexual twenty-year old woman. Her Black mother is a college professor of Shakespeare and I believe her White father is also an academic. At the age of eight, she was hit by a car and lost her leg below the knee; she uses a prosthetic.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Red is on her own and her family is dead. It’s revealed within the first few pages. Once the Cough (as the outbreak is named) begins spreading and shit hits the fan, her parents are killed in a hate crime. Racists seek them out and murder them. The ableist language happens once or twice, as Red uses the term “cripple” in a moment of self-hatred and anger. There is no sexual violence on the page, but references are made to it occurring in a general sense. The action and general violence is graphic in its depiction and Henry does not skimp on details regarding blood and viscera.
I wanted to explain this all upfront so you can gauge whether or not to continue with the review, or even if you’d want to pick up the book.
Red’s journey jumps back and forth between before the Cough and as she’s experiencing three months later in the present. We get to see in detail how her family handled the initial paranoia, how her parents died, how her older brother died, and what has ultimately led her to living in isolation. She’s hellbent on surviving and getting to her grandmother’s house, which is several hundred miles away. Red believes her grandmother’s house is the best bet for safety because she lives somewhat off the grid and away from civilization. If anyone could make it through the apocalypse, it’s Red’s grandma.
It never occurred to Red that Grandma wouldn’t be there when they arrived. Even though hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were dying every day, it seemed impossible to contemplate Grandma dying from the thing that was killing everyone.
Grandmas didn’t die from stuff like that. Grandmas went on and on, enduring year after year, shriveled and worn but somehow ageless. Grandmas outlived grandfathers and after they grieved they just rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. Grandmas knew how to do everything (except maybe with their smartphones–they would need a little help there but in this new world smartphones were just garbage anyway, so that meant grandmas were now without flaw) and get through any crisis. So of course Grandma would be there at the end.
I appreciated the before versus after aspects. Seeing Red’s relationship with each family member and how she fits into that family unit was a fantastic way of getting to know her. The gradual descent in her prickly, “trust no one” demeanor is so sad to witness when compared to the bright, snarky woman she was before the Cough.
For the first half of the book, the action is slower. There are more flashbacks, but there’s a huge turning point in the action. It comes right after the reveal of how her brother died. From then on, I couldn’t stop reading because there’s a bit of a twist and I pulled a Bad Decisions Book Club to finish this one. If you try this book and feel as though the beginning is sluggish, I highly recommend sticking with it.The first part is character oriented and the second part is more action oriented. Once the characters and Red’s personality are established, we really get to see Red kicking ass and taking names.
Though The Girl in Red is rooted in modern horror, near-future science fiction, some of Red’s thoughts punched me in the gut. She ruminates on the helplessness women feel and it’s a glaring reminder that this treatment has nothing to do with a post-apocalyptic pandemic. We are living some of these horrors right now.
“And what will you do if you get caught by them? I don’t think they are the type that will be kind to a woman alone.”
“Do you think I don’t know what kind of men this world has wrought?” Red said. “Every woman knows. And those men existed before everything fell apart.”
Red is so raw in her anger and rage and regret. The goodbyes she had to give to her family weren’t on anyones’ terms; their deaths were sudden and unexpected. There’s a truly heartbreaking moment for Red when that dam of grief just breaks:
Red swung her axe.
She was angry. That was a surprise. She was furious, actually–furious that somebody like this was still alive and walking around when her family was dead.
It was always men like this, men who thought that they could take what they wanted and leave the broken scraps of people behind. Men like the ones who’d driven up to her house with rifles with the intent to kill them all.
Red wasn’t sorry to kill them at all. Not at all.
Though there was one thing that bothered me about Red: her sheer sense of altruism. There are several moments where she refuses to carry a gun, let alone use one temporarily. She doesn’t like them and it’s fair to have a hatred for firearms. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be picky if I were on my own where a mysterious disease is running rampant. Red is incredibly smart. Having her weigh the options of carrying a gun for protection versus her discomfort in using one and still choose to forgo an extra weapon was a choice I didn’t necessarily understand given the circumstances.
For readers who prefer things to be tied up at the end, this book will frustrate you. We don’t get all the answers and while it doesn’t have a cliffhanger, it has a rather open-ended finish. It bothered me slightly, but that’s because I want to know ALL THE THINGS especially when a twist is revealed.
While the Cough is happening, another thing is wreaking havoc at the same time. Red and her brother begin to find bodies that look as if something exploded out of their chest. It’s revealed that a tapeworm like creature has escaped from a government lab. It finds a host, grows inside a person’s chest cavity, and then explodes from it to run amok.
There’s a both a deadly virus and chest-bursting tapeworm creature. You don’t get to find out much about either, unfortunately.
Because there are several things that aren’t explained or solved, there’s plenty left for a sequel. I would love to return to Red’s world and keep seeing her be a badass. There is also a teeny tiny hint of a potential romance that could happen in the future. As of right now, nothing has been announced or revealed on whether Henry will continue. Even if there’s no sequel, I was still satisfied with the ending.
The only retelling of Henry’s I’ve read is her Alice duology and I preferred this one more. It’s less bleak, though I believe Alice was Henry’s first installment in these retellings. Both, however, are imaginative, twisted, and feature complicated, strong heroines.
As I don’t have much of an attachment to Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid, I’ve skipped those retellings, but Carrie really enjoyed The Mermaid.
If you’ve enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and I did), you should definitely pick up The Girl in Red. It’s definitely more feminist than The Road, and while it keeps the same level of world-building bleakness, but it has a happier ending.