Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.
Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.
Five centuries apart, the dancing fever has taken hold.
In 1518, Lala hides her Romani roots while Strasbourg falls victim to a mysterious dancing plague, one that leaves its victims dead of exhaustion from the endless movement. Harboring her own secrets along with those belonging to her loved ones, she tries to blend in even as the world around her tries to force her out of hiding.
Meanwhile, 500 years later, Rosella Oliva watches her family’s red shoes sweep through the town of Briar Meadow. The yearly glimmer has given the town a chance at a fresh boldness through the shoes, but when Rosella sews a pair for herself, they bring her only uncontrollable dance teetering along the edge of danger.
And watching Rosella spin out of control is Emil, a boy whose family history is closer to the dancing fever than anyone else. Withdrawn from his roots, and far from bold, he collides with Rosella anyway, forging something new out of an old friendship.
If he can help her survive the dance first.
I’ve heard wonderful things about Anna-Marie McLemore’s prose, but with Dark and Deepest Red, I’ve finally experienced it.
This is far and away one of the most lyrical, immersive books I’ve read in a long time. Every pitch for Anna-Marie McLemore’s books mentions their prose, but it took reading this book for me to understand exactly how heartfelt that praise is. They are a master of blending the mundane with the unusual, the magical, and they do it in a symphony of color and motion. Of course, Dark and Deepest Red places heavy emphasis on color as a matter of plot. The Oliva family is famous for their red shoes, while Lala’s family carries on Romani traditions in their inks and dyes. Color lies at the heart of every character, sweeps over every inch of history.
Plus, Anna-Marie McLemore also dances between points of view and tenses with an outrageously beautiful fluidity. Rosella’s story is first person past tense, while Emil’s is third past. And back in 1518, Lala’s story spools out in third person present, drawing the reader in close despite the distance of 500 years.
I’m thoroughly enchanted by every word in this book, and would recommend it on the basis of its prose alone. That’s not the only reason to read it, of course, but it is a compelling one all the same!
“I would find a way to make sure we never had to destroy something of ourselves just to stop other people from taking it.”
The other major feature of Dark and Deepest Red that makes it worth the read is its characters. Lala in particular is a wonderful character, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with her. She longs to reconnect with her Romani roots, but hides nonetheless in order to protect herself, her aunt, and the boy who lives with them. They all have their own secrets besides their heritage that make them targets in Strasbourg, too, and Lala does everything in her power to protect them from harm. Being Romani is dangerous enough, but with her aunt unwed and Alifair a trans boy, the sources of harm in Strasbourg are even greater in number. Only by blending in with Strasbourg’s other residents does Lala think she can protect her beloved family.
Except it’s not that simple, and 500 years later, Rosella and Emil face similar dilemmas. Though not faced with vicious persecution for their mere existence, there’s no denying the pressure to hide their traditions, their history, and make it more appealing or simply less visible to their neighbors in Briar Meadow. And like Lala, they must learn that they have a place in this world, regardless of what their peers think of them.
Admittedly, I wish we’d spent more time with Emil and Rosella. Compared to Lala, I feel like we only saw small parts of them when we could have seen and fallen in love with so much more. But at the same time, Lala’s story was by far the most serious, the most deadly, and the most decisive. Her history lays the groundwork for Rosella and Emil to accept themselves, to embrace themselves without strings attached and regardless of whatever judgment comes from those around them.
If you haven’t picked up Dark and Deepest Red yet, it’s time.
Set in mid-fall, it’s a perfect match for the chilly air settling in right now. More than that, it’s only about 300 pages, and it’s bursting with color and life on every page. This won’t be a warm and fluffy read, but it will be one that stays with you for ages, long after you read it the first time. Its lyrical prose and heartfelt characters have a way of settling in your heart, and it makes the experience altogether unforgettable, a triumph of magical realism and love.
CW: loss of a loved one, anti-Romani persecution, anti-Romani slurs, racism, blackface, violence, sex scene, transphobia, homophobia