As high school student Rosella Oliva rekindles a friendship with her childhood friend Emil, she notes how “in his house, fairy tales were neither just the sparkle of fairy lights nor blood on glass slippers. They were beautiful and dangerous all at once, the glossed candy red of a poison apple.”
Indeed, in Dark and Deepest Red, Anne-Marie McLemore’s riveting retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” a fairy tale seems to have possessed Rosella, who belongs to a Mexican American family of shoemakers. During her town’s annual autumn week known as the Glimmer, when mysterious things always happen, a pair of red shoes suddenly attach themselves to Rosella’s feet, making her dance wildly and igniting her passion for Emil.
Emil, the son of two history professors, tries to avoid history at all costs, while keeping his own Romani heritage secret from fear of hateful repercussions. Nonetheless, his family’s past seems to be “reaching across five centuries to grab hold of him” as he begins having visions of a young woman in medieval Strasbourg. That young woman is Lavinia, who finds herself in the midst of Strasbourg’s 1518 dancing plague. Romance blossoms between orphaned Lavinia, who is also Romani, and Alifair, a trans boy her aunt has taken in. As Rosella and Emil try to navigate these strange events, they both begin to realize that Rosella “was the girl the red shoes had come for, and that some thread of the dancing plague had come back for.”
McLemore skillfully weaves together these parallel medieval and modern tales in alternating chapters. The resulting novel is not only fascinating but one that seamlessly and thoughtfully explores themes of heritage, prejudice and sexual identity while racing toward its tension-laced yet satisfying ending.
In a powerful author’s note, McLemore, who identifies as nonbinary and whose husband is trans, writes, “Girls like me were here five hundred years ago. So were boys like the one alongside me right now. Much has changed in five hundred years. And so much has held. Both the good in the human heart, and the vicious insistence on finding someone to blame.”
Dark and Deepest Red’s provocative, insightful collision of fairy tale and history is a powerful demonstration of McLemore’s immense talent.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Anna-Marie McLemore.