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VSUltimate Canadian novelist Mona Awad is best known for her 2019 novel Bunny, which explores the toxic relationships between students in an elite creative writing program. Her new book introduces us to beauty junkie Belle, so obsessed with her skincare routine that she can’t find room for anything else in life. The opening sees her catapulted to California, where her mother Noelle, a failed movie actress, recently died. Noelle’s death was ruled an accident; for Belle, the story does not ring true. Why would her mother walk along a dangerous cliff after dark, and who is the stranger who has the key to her apartment? And why was Noelle, usually so mistress, increasingly distracted and vague in the months leading up to her death?

Further investigations reveal that Noelle had debts of several thousand dollars. Desperate for answers, Belle discovers that her mother has become involved with La Maison de Méduse, an upscale beauty spa whose members’ obsession with secrecy and rituals seems oddly bigoted. For Belle, the offer of free treatment is impossible to resist. And it is there, in “the Depths” of the spa, that Belle begins to get a petrifying glimpse, not only of what is really going on at La Maison de Méduse, but also of the deliberately erased traumas of her own past.

The beauty – pun – of Awad’s fascinating literary experience lies in his lyrical, almost dreamlike use of language and his use of archetypal symbols to illustrate a very modern fairy tale. The novel’s prologue offers a story scene between mother and daughter at bedtime: “Each night you lie in your princess bed, surrounded by your glassy-eyed dolls, waiting for her like a wish. Tick, tick the seconds on your Snow White clock. The moon rose white among the black clouds. The mother is described as “blonde, thin and sweet”, while the daughter is “a beastly little thing, not at all like her mother”.

We are already in a world of fairy tales: in addition to Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, references to Red Riding Hood, the Hare and the Tortoise and the Three Little Pigs follow one another. Although he is dressed in the traditional clothes of fairy tales told to children, the imagery of the stories becomes increasingly dark and strange: “the wolf moon in the window, two gray-bodied spiders hanging from webs on the pink walls”. Later, the repeated evocation of the distinctive red packaging of the House’s products, held tantalizingly against the cheek like that famous poisoned apple, brings us back to Snow White; like the strangely distorting mirrors which, like doors to another dimension, invade the walls of Noelle’s apartment and reveal to us the savagery and wickedness at the heart of most fairy tales.

The title is deliberately chosen, because it is a novel in which color always takes precedence over decor. Noelle’s red shoes – a clear allusion to both Dorothy’s ruby ​​slippers in The Wizard of Oz and the demonic ballerina shoes from Powell and Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes – alert us to danger, as they lead Beauty to the heart from the realm where scarlet silk, crimson lips and demonic eyes flash and shine.

White – the magical color of purity – is here the pallor of ghosts, of invisibility, the satin of effacement. The issue of whiteness is further complicated by the fact that Belle is mixed race. Her red-haired mother is the embodiment of whiteness; Belle’s Egyptian father died when she was five. Belle vividly recalls that her mother seemed both to envy her darker skin and yet feel repulsed by her. “You were lovely. You were lucky,” Noelle told her daughter, but Belle “knew then that she was lying. Certainly.”

Although it’s tempting to equate Belle’s last name, Nour, with the French word for black, in Arabic it means brightness. The models in Noelle’s high-end clothing boutique – Belles of the Ball – are repulsively white, almost shockingly white, with the same blood-red lips as the high priestesses of beauty in The House of Medusa: thin women like a serpent and of a phantom pallor which aspires to “the Glow”, the false mother-of-pearl of a dream of whiteness which can only signify obliteration.

In Awad’s hands, the very idea of ​​whiteness becomes a dangerous illusion, and I can’t help but think of 18th-century cosmetic treatments in which lead was used as a bleaching agent, destroying the skin of women raised in a society that valued a pale complexion above all else, a preference that actively helped entrench racism at the heart of Western imperialism. Likewise, the dolls we see at the start of the novel – perfect, white and expressionless – hold up a distorting mirror to how little girls should ideally look and behave.

Basically, Rouge is not so much a fairy tale as a vampire story. The childhood abuser who repeatedly appears to Belle as Top Gun-era Tom Cruise is surely a stand-in for Count Dracula himself; notice how Belle has to personally invite him to her room before he can enter.

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The rhapsodic, trance-like language and the atmosphere of growing unreality make for a narrative that overflows with unease. The sense of threat is palpable, and Awad treats his material with enthusiasm, imagination, and a refined knowledge of his sources. However, as the book progresses, I can’t help but feel that the symbolism, like the overly liberally applied red, becomes a bit obvious. Belle seems too ready to embark on a path whose dangers are apparent to her from the start, and I would have liked to know her better in the real world before letting myself be drawn into the labyrinth of fantasy. For me at least, the balance between the real and the imagined in Rouge is off balance, and by the end of the novel, I felt like I’d poked my head down that rabbit hole one too many times.

Red by Mona Awad is published by Scribner (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.