Christina Henry’s The Girl in Red takes the well-tread story of Little Red Riding Hood and combines it with today’s fascination with dystopian apocalypse scenarios. It’s not necessarily new to put a dark and gritty spin on old fairy tales, but it doesn’t always stick the landing. In this case, I think it does. Instead of simply making everything more violent or adult, Henry provides depth to the characters and expands the world they inhabit. The old tale is more of a guideline that readers can feel good about recognizing references to than a step-by-step retelling.
Our protagonist, Red (whose real name is Cordelia), is not the gullible little girl from the original story, either. From the first few pages we are shown that Red is smart and capable in a world that seems determined to kill her. The story follows her as she makes the trek to her grandmother’s house after the “Crisis,” an outbreak of a mysterious virus that wiped out much of the population. Point of view alternates between a ‘Before” and an ‘After,’ slowly revealing information in a way that kept my attention. Once I learned one more thing that happened ‘before,’ it would contextualize the ‘after’ and bring me further into the story. This also helped with the world building; exposition was provided in a way that is natural and doesn’t seem rushed.
While she does meet up with people throughout the novel, we do spend a lot of time inside of Red’s head as she makes the journey alone. This is one area I think Henry succeeds. Long stretches with little to no character interaction has the potential to get boring, but I never think this novel fell into that. While the subject matter may be slightly repetitive, a lot of talk about survival and where she will find food, I found the prose engaging. Red’s internal monologue keeps it focused; she is strong, unyielding, and at times sarcastic. That, and the alternating timeline, meant that it feels balanced.
The novel is also very genre savvy. Red, who is a big fan of horror and sci-fi movies, is always coming back to her “rules” for survival that she gleaned from the many movies she’d seen:
“She wished she had time to go there now, just to take a quick look around, but that was violating one of the many rules of life in the postapocalyptic war zone. Rule number eight, or whatever–Red had lost track although she thought she probably should write them down–Never Deviate from the Plan. If the protagonist decided on a course of action and then was distracted like a magpie from the course, then Something Would Happen.
Something Would Happen, Red decided…should be its own rule. Of course, it was the consequence for violating so many of the rules, like Never Separate, so maybe it should just be the addendum to every rule.” (264-5, ch 14).
There are moments like this throughout. This serves to give us hints of Red’s personality, someone who its equally rational and puts stock in lessons from movies. It also navigates around any potential cheesiness or hard to believe elements by playing into the absurdity of the situation.
Overall, I would call the book a success. The twists felt satisfying, though they may not be the most surprising, and I was never bored. Its genre is a bit hard to pin down, but I’d recommend it to anyone who likes horror and sci-fi, or mystery, or even anyone looking for a strong female protagonist with real character development. While The Girl in Red may walk familiar ground, it also adds something new to the conversation.