Review - The Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin, Indigo, #163;8.99 - Debauchery and suppurating sores

10th August 2012 at 01:00

A confession: when The Masque of the Red Death landed on my desk, I was not best pleased. "A devastating plague has decimated the population," the back cover blurb reads. "So what does Araby Worth have to live for? Nights in the Debauchery Club, beautiful dresses, glittery make-up - so many tantalising ways to escape from it all."

Then I read the accompanying PR notice and saw that its author was a teacher. "Oh, no," I said. "I'm actually going to have to read a book about someone called Araby Worth. I bet there are rippings of bodices before it ends."

So it is greater praise than it sounds when I say that, in fact, The Masque of the Red Death, a young-adult novel by English and history teacher Bethany Griffin, is not that bad.

Araby Worth (I still find it hard to write this with a straight face) has spent years drinking and drugging herself into oblivion after her twin brother was killed by the aforementioned devastating plague. But then her friend April introduces her to her poetry-writing brother Elliott, and suddenly Araby is being alternately kidnapped and swept off her feet.

It is Elliott, in fact, who does the bodice-ripping. It comes when he is teaching Araby to fence. It is hard to work out how much fencing she actually learns, but her dress ends up on the floor in shreds.

Elsewhere, Araby is busy being transformed from oblivion-seeking socialite to committed revolutionary. We know this because she repeatedly states it explicitly: "Father chooses to interpret my question as if I am completely shallow. As ignorant as I was a week ago."

And, because bodices never rip smoothly, there is also hunkily tattooed Will, who is kind to small children. Which man will Araby fall for? I am not sure even Griffin knows.

Still, her world is lovingly realised: we are drawn into its horrors and its debauched pleasures, its suppurating sores, steam carriages and porcelain masks. And Griffin captures beautifully what it might be like to become terrifyingly familiar with disease and death.

The characters, however, hold the novel back. April, for example, tips over into parody the moment Araby is injured, responding: "You're never going to be able to wear a backless dress again." Elliott, meanwhile, has the kind of troubled past that Fifty Shades of Grey has made de rigueur.

Griffin is clearly planning a sequel: The Masque of the Red Death sets the scene, but offers nothing by way of resolution. Do I care enough about any of the characters to read on and find out what befalls them? Not unless, in volume two, Araby Worth decides to change her name.

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