Review: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

sisters red jackson pearce Review: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Despite the sanitised reproductions flitting across theatre screens or rendered in block-colour glory in children's picture books, fairy tales have traditionally functioned less as sumptuous rags to riches accounts railing against strict class systems and more as rather pointed cautionary tales designed to keep children both morally upright and close to home. Frequently, the take home message is something along the lines of'avoid the woods at all cost or never trust a stranger. It's a sign of a confident author then that Jackson Pearce in her retelling of'Little Red Riding Hood adheres far more strongly to this warily paranoid paradigm than to the increasingly romanticised take on the monstrous that is being seen with increasing frequency in today's young adult genre fiction.

From the very first pages we're thrust into a cold, sinister revamp of this already chilling fairy tale classic: one where Grandma has been mercilessly thrown to the wolves, or the fenris, as Pearce labels them (somewhat oddly, given the otherwise modern vernacular used in this book) and where the longed-for and expected help of the Woodsman is not forthcoming. In Sisters Red, Little Red doesnt rely on intervention from strong and goodly forces, but is forced to retaliate, sacrificing her innocence in a sheer animalistic drive for survival. From its eerie beginning,'Sisters Red continues to capitalise on the heightened alienation of our own world, a world where the individual is increasingly pitted against all manner of external conflicts and competition. In'Sisters Red, however, unlike our own, these conflicts are transformed into something very real and very dangerous indeed.

In an interesting take on Little Red, Pearce renders her not as one little girl, but as two sisters, a point she plays on by reiterating, at times subtly, at 'times overtly, that neither is a whole person in and of themselves: rather, each is half of a whole. Scarlett is the scarred, brutalised Little Red whose sense of self-worth goes only so far as her ability to hunt and slay, while Rosie is the sweet innocent, the one who has 'some sort of viable future, and for whom Scarlett has sacrificed everything, and on whom, then, she puts a terrible burden of expectation. By separating Little Red in a consciously yin and yang manner, Pearce is able to give us two contrasting and compelling paths the one character might take, an approach she takes by switching between the perspectives of the two girls.

We follow Rosie and Scarlett as, between nightly efforts to lure and kill the fenris, they eke out a strangely comfortable existence of chocolate cookie baking, film watching, long walks into town, and flirting with Silas, who is a youthful take on the woodsman of the Grimm fairy tale. The sisters largely keep to themselves, finding a sort of social completion in each others company, or at least so were told by each of the sisters. However, this familiar, and rather strangely dull, existence, one theyve maintained in the seven years since their grandmothers death, is suddenly thrown into disarray when its revealed that the fenris are banding together in the search for a proximate potential, an as-yet unidentified man being sought for conversion into the fenris ranks. The sisters and Silas decide, in spite of their abject poverty, that an extended visit to Atlanta will give them their best chance of gouging into the fenris numbers and reducing the threat they pose to the young women who are invariably their victims. And so begins a fraught cat and mouse game between hunter and hunted.

But as the narrative progresses, the relationships between our main actors become increasingly problematic and unstable, and its here rather than in the battle against the fenris that the main battle is fought. Rosie is increasingly inculcated into Scarletts self-destructive obsession with destroying the fenris, an obsession that seems to become only more overwhelming when she becomes privy to Rosie and Silass relationship, something that she argues is a futile distraction from time that could be better spent hunting. Silas, meanwhile, recognises Scarletts all consuming drive to destroy the fenris, and sees that its motivated perhaps less out of a desire to protect the victims as she says, but more out of a need to retain an identity that is faltering in the face of her sisters new romance. Scarlett, who has since that fateful night wielded quite a terrible control over her sister, using the guilt her sister feels at being the whole one, the innocent with a future, to cow her into a position of subservience under the guise of protection, only steps up her efforts when Silas attempts to assert himself as Rosies protector. But Silas is perhaps not the man he seems to be

I admit that I held extremely high expectations for Sisters Red, having seen quite a lot of hype about it upon its release. And upon beginning it, these expectations seemed to hold. After a slightly uneven prologue (but then, in my book, almost all prologues are uneven, so Ill let that go), Pearce seems to offer us what should be a fabulous Buffy-with-extra-bonus-darkness romp, sketching out a promising beginning with confident prose and neat characterisation.

Unfortunately, the book takes some time to really get going, and much of the resulting plot seems rather aimless and listless. For example, were given a thorough overview of Scarletts obsession with killing off the innumerable fenris, something she can only ever do one or two at a time, and Pearce points out the futility and fruitlessness of this rather Zeno-esque goal. Thus, the'decision to move to Atlanta in order to strike at the heart of the various fenris clans seems as though it should be a turning point, that Scarlett should be given some opportunity to assert herself in a way that she can not only avenge her grandmothers death, but also seek some sort of closure with regard to the horrific injuries she has sustained herself and the ascetic life she has forced herself to lead. But none of this happens. Rather, Scarlett and Rosie continue their small-scale hunting efforts in exactly the same way as they have in the past, only this time in an unfamiliar setting. The plot becomes rather episodic in nature, alternating between grocery shopping, cooking, and one-off fenris attacks, and never really breaks out of this cycle. There are other plot points, too, that feel forced and unmotivated, such as Scarletts out-of-the-blue visit to see Silass grandfather, which coincidentally results in a major reveal.

I struggled with the depiction of the characters in this, too. While the irretrievably lost Scarlett is by far the most intriguing of the characters, and the one with the most potential for growth and reflection, shes instead rendered rather flatly, given little other role than as the crushingly protective sister obsessed with the hunt. This is frustrating as there is so much opportunity for Scarlett to grow, particularly when her relationship with Rosie is forced to change as a result of Rosies relationship with Silas. Instead, all were given is Scarletts domineering, controlling side, and I cant help but feel that if Scarlett were a male rather than a female readers would have had some very different reactions to this novel indeed. Instead of positioning Scarlett as her protagonist, however,'Pearce instead focuses much of the narrative on Rosie, the unspoilt sister, and this sat a little oddly with me, as though Pearce is offering a commentary on the worthiness or the prospects of a character based on their past experiences. Scarlett seems to be cast aside as someone who has had, but has ruined, her chances, and the focus instead is on Rosie, through whom Scarlett must live vicariously in order to actually experience a normal existence. Rosie offers few of the possibilities of Scarlett, however, and her character is relegated to a strange role involving acting as bait (something I find highly problematic in this book, but more on that later), and as Silass lover. Given that she is supposed to be Scarletts light side, having available to her the experiences that Scarlett never will, it seems as though Rosies character should be introspective or reflective in some way, or be used to contrast the two roles of the sisters in relation to each other. Rosie, however, is a very lightly sketched character who spends most of the book mooningly in love and boiling ramen noodles.

Perhaps the most problematic of all of the issues of this book, however, is the particular way in which females are positioned as sexual beings. I found the relationship between Rosie and Silas quite confronting given their substantial age gap and the apparent lack of motivation behind itindeed, Silas mentions that hes basically fallen in love with Rosie because of Scarletts rejection, and the leisurely way that he seems to treat his relationships with the two is at times uncomfortable. Theres no depth or reason behind the relationship: rather it seems to be one of convenience and proximity more than anything. Theres the fact that Rosie is constantly positioned as bait for the fenris, which to me is quite an uncomfortable notion, particularly given the message it sends about the role of the victim and the attacker in terms of sexual assault or rape. This is highlighted during an extremely problematic scene in which Scarlett and Silas claim that 'a group of night-clubbing girls is asking for it, and I found it incredibly painful that neither character problematised this issue or sought to defend the women in question. In addition to all of this, theres the fact that Scarlett is essentially cast aside as irredeemably broken and unloveable, something touched upon time and time again throughout the book.

Theres no denying that Sisters Red is a dark book, but Im not sure that many of the disturbing themes Ive elucidated above were intended by the writer. While at the outset its a promising book, and theres no denying that Pearce has a strong and confident writing style and an ability to twist the familiar into something altogether new, the book is let down not only by its pacing issues, but also by its highly problematic take on women and agency. I wanted to love this, but in the end I found myself truly struggling to identify with much of the book. Rather than the stranger danger'moral, which puts the attacker at fault, with the victim a mere unfortunate passerby, were given something more along the lines of: its in their nature, so behave lest you tempt them.

Rating: ?????

With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy.

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