‘It wasn’t un­til I started writ­ing about sex­ual as­sault that the work took off’

The Observer - The New Review - - Books - Rosie Price Alice O’Ke­effe

What Red Was (Harvill Secker, May)

Rosie Price had set her sights on be­ing a writer sev­eral years be­fore she started work on What Red Was. “But it wasn’t un­til I started writ­ing about sex­ual as­sault that the work took off. It felt so ur­gent – there was so much I needed to say, and that gave me the mo­men­tum to keep go­ing.”

Price, 26, was her­self the vic­tim of rape, when she was “too young to un­der­stand prop­erly”. Through writ­ing the book, she be­gan to make sense of her own ex­pe­ri­ences, ex­plor­ing how the as­sault had “changed my view of the world”.

The novel is an in­trigu­ing blend: part com­edy of man­ners, part hard­hit­ting drama. Price was in­flu­enced, she says, by Ed­ward St Aubyn’s blackly comic Pa­trick Mel­rose novels, and the idea that “the more lev­ity and joy­ful mo­ments you have, the darker you are able to go”.

It fol­lows a young woman, Kate Quaile, as she leaves her mod­est up­bring­ing in ru­ral Glouces­ter­shire for uni­ver­sity. There she meets Max Rip­pon, a charis­matic young man from a priv­i­leged back­ground. Kate is drawn into Max’s world, and be­comes close to his mother, Zara, a suc­cess­ful film di­rec­tor. She be­comes in­creas­ingly re­liant on the Rip­pons, both emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially, so when she is as­saulted by one of their in­ner cir­cle, she finds her­self trapped.

When Price started writ­ing the novel she was work­ing in a lit­er­ary agency – a job she had held since grad­u­at­ing three years ear­lier. She ini­tially worked on the book in the evenings and at week­ends, but then quickly re­alised that she needed to “make the leap and com­mit”. She left her job for a more flex­i­ble tu­tor­ing role, which al­lowed her to write in the morn­ings. The gam­ble paid off: there was a five-way auc­tion among publishers for What Red Was, and film rights have now been bought by the BBC.

Of course the book feels timely in the light of the #MeToo move­ment – but the project was al­ready well un­der way when the first We­in­stein al­le­ga­tions sur­faced in Oc­to­ber 2017. Some of the echoes in Price’s nar­ra­tive seem al­most un­canny. “When it all emerged, I al­ready had a char­ac­ter who was a fe­male film di­rec­tor, who had been as­saulted,” she says.

Al­though she praises #MeToo as “an in­cred­i­ble move­ment”, she de­scribes that pe­riod as a dif­fi­cult one for peo­ple who have been vic­tims of rape and as­sault. “It is re­ally hard to be re­minded of it ev­ery time you turn on the news. And in some ways it felt as though those ex­pe­ri­ences were be­ing nor­malised.”

What Red Was has al­lowed Price not only to ex­plore her own legacy of trauma, but also to find a way of speak­ing out – the pros and cons of which are ex­plored in the book.

“No­body can tell a rape sur­vivor how to be­have – there are a plethora of rea­sons why speak­ing out may not be the right thing to do,” she says. “The one thing you have af­ter­wards is con­trol over how you tell your story. For me, the process of writ­ing has been very em­pow­er­ing.”

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