“Well-crafted seams and delicate beading gave my family a trade and a living. But red shoes gave us a name. They made us infamous. Until they came for us.”
Strasbourg, 1518: A plague of uncontrollable dancing sweeps through the independent city of Strasbourg, rousing suspicions of witchcraft and demonic activity. Lala and her aunt Dorenia have been living in the city since Romani were driven out of neighbouring countries by order of law. The laws eventually came to Strasbourg as well, but the two women have lived quietly, hiding their true ethnicity behind rumours of illegitimate descent from an Italian lord. But when rumours of witchcraft begin to swirl in earnest, the unspoken suspicions of their neighbours loom large. In the present day, Emil and Rosella live in Briar Meadows, a town that is entirely normal fifty one weeks out of the year. But every autumn, the glimmer arrives and settles over the reservoir, precipitating unexpected events that fade as quickly as the autumn leaves. This year, it is the legendary red shoes made by Rosella’s family that seem to have become truly magical, but Rosella worries that the taint of witchcraft will haunt her family long after the glimmer fades. Meanwhile, Emil tries to understand the connection between the glimmer and a family legend about long ago ancestors who were tried for witchcraft after a dancing plague swept through the region.
In their fifth book, Anna-Marie McLemore turns their talent for magical realism to the realm of fairy tales, and history, combining Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” with the documented la fièvre de la danse that ensnared the city of Strasbourg in 1518. In their Author’s Note, written from the city of Strasbourg in 2018, McLemore notes that there is no known connection between the two, but they “still wonder if perhaps Hans Christian Andersen had, at the back of his mind, a little piece of history that mentions red shoes, and an Alsatian city gripped by dancing as though it was a plague.” In Dark and Deepest Red, McLemore makes the suspected connection explicit, casting Emil as a descendant of the women who were accused of causing the plague.
Dark and Deepest Red is structured around three alternating narrators, beginning with Rosella, whose family, the Olivas, are known for their exquisite handmade shoes. Next is Lala, who goes by Lavinia outside her family, because it is essential that they hide their Romani heritage. Finally, we have Emil, a modern day Romani boy who has supressed his heritage in order to fit in. Briar Meadows has a touch of magic, true, but it is not otherwise so accepting of things that are out of the ordinary. Emil’s parents are scholars, and their family history is well-researched and documented, but Emil doesn’t really want to know the stories his parents have so painstakingly saved for him. The chapters alternate in quick succession, and indeed this might be the book’s greatest weakness; while it keeps all of the plots moving, it also means that the reader never has time to really settle in and connect with one character.
Dark and Deepest Red orbits around two central romances. Lala has long been in love with Alifair the orphaned trans boy who appeared mysteriously appeared out of the Black Woods one day when they were both still children. He has since become her aunt’s apprentice in their dyeing and ink-making business, his uncanny talent for slipping among wasps unstung further adding to his mystery. But Lala constantly worries that if she and her aunt are exposed as Romani, Alifair will be tainted by association. Emil and Rosella were friends when they were children, finding a unique bond in the fact that they didn’t quite fit in among the other children of Briar Meadows. But they slowly grew apart, until the dancing shoes bring them back together unexpectedly. Rosella tries to hide her affliction, desperate for the glimmer to pass, while Emil’s denial of his heritage means that unbeknownst to them both, he may hold the key to the answers Rosella seeks. Only together can they solve the problem. The two relationships mirror one another, showing how secrets complicate our every attempt to connect.
While this book has much of the magic of McLemore’s previous reads, and deals with many of the same issues, the structure makes it difficult to sink into and revel in that magic in quite the same way as The Weight of Feathers or Wild Beauty.
You might also like When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
4 thoughts on “Dark and Deepest Red”
I’d not heard of this before, but it sounds wonderful! I love the idea of a retelling that combines with a real historical event.
I think this is an important story but I agree that I couldn’t get into it as I did with most of McLemore’s other books. Neither timeline really engaged me at all – I felt that lack of ‘magic’. I find all their books have the same narrative arc (making the stories extremely predictable) and I was getting tired of that already with Blanca & Roja…
Blanca & Roja is the only one of their books I haven’t read yet so I’ll be interested to circle back and see what I think!