Between climate change and the fear of impending war, civilization’s collapse feels closer every day. In her latest novel, The Girl in Red, Christina Henry explores what comes after society falls apart.
Like in her previous novels, Henry repurposes a folktale—this time it’s “Little Red Riding Hood”—to tell a modern story. Except this Red, a 20-year-old who lost a leg in a childhood accident, gets her name from the red hoodie she wears. She’s predictably on her way to her grandmother’s house, only this journey is prompted by a pandemic cough that’s obliterating the world’s population. With her parents and brother gone, Red’s forced to navigating a post-civilization United States on her own.
Henry’s known for her twisty, pulpy fiction, and The Girl in Red continues the author’s signature trend. She introduces enough storylines that end in tragedy to keep the reader on their toes, but she doesn’t provide closure at the end. There’s realism to this; Red, after all, is a woman alone in a crumbling world. She has more questions than answers about what’s happening, and although Red’s able to intuit a great deal, she’s never given all the pieces needed to puzzle out what’s going on. In the end, though, this doesn’t matter. This is a novel that hits all the notes to be a satisfying, quick read that keeps you guessing.
Which is not to say it’s bereft of more poignant moments. Henry succeeds in creating the Big Bad Wolf not as a solid character, but as an abstract threat that manifests throughout the story. In the opening chapter, Red has to face off with a coyote-esque man who threatens her. After easily dispatching him with her axe, Red reminds herself not to think of him as an animal, but to recognize that he was a man who meant her harm. That idea—that mankind’s capacity for cruelty is the ultimate villain—recurs throughout the novel.
From militias eager to take advantage of lawlessness to fellow travelers desperate for something to eat, Red is confronted with humanity at its least humane. That, rather than the illness sweeping the country, is what’s likely to hurt her the most. But she also meets people doing their best in unthinkable circumstances, who trust Red enough to help her or let her help them. This isn’t a sentimental story, so Henry doesn’t beat the reader over the head with the secondary message that together is the only way we can survive. But it comes through just enough to maintain a sense of hopefulness.
Despite some shortcomings, this gruesome novel touches on timely themes in ways that don’t feel ham-fisted. The Girl in Red ultimately delivers an engrossing page-turner that will delight anyone who loves running through thought experiments about the apocalypse.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.