The Red Shoe – Ursula Dubosarsky
I had to read ‘The Red Shoe’ twice before I really appreciated it. At the first reading, I found it frustrating, disjointed and hard-going. However, the second time around I began to appreciate the subtleties of this novel. Unlike the others on the short list, this novel needs to be taken slowly and savoured, as there are many layers of meaning.
‘The Red Shoe’ is the story of three girls, aged 6, 11 and 15, living in a remote house at Palm Beach in the 1950’s. Matilda is the youngest, then there is Francis, who is refusing to go to school, and Elizabeth, suffering a mental breakdown. The story is told from the perspective of Matilda, the youngest sister, and Dubosarsky has captured the six year old point of view skilfully. One fascinating element is Matilda’s imaginary friend, Floreal. He is not the usual alter ego, but is a 22 year old Argonaut who has come out of the radio. Instead of being comforting, he is often blunt and sarcastic, but he helps to be a commentary on events she doesn’t comprehend. The disjointed nature of the book comes because Matilda’s childish mind is often describing events beyond her understanding.
We, as readers, are given clues to these outside events using the device of intertextuality. The book includes excerpts from the Sydney Morning Herald from April 8th to 30th, 1954. These newspaper articles concern the Petrov Affair, Einstein and the Atomic Bomb, the Cold War and the polio epidemic of the time.
There are three main plot lines which are interwoven in ‘The Red Shoe’. These are the lives of the three girls, their parents’ relationship and the politics of the outside world. Dubosarsky skilfully interweaves these by using evocative imagery involving red shoes. There are the red shoes of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, told at the beginning of the book to Matilda, the red shoes of their mother, and the red shoe of the wife of Russian spy, Vladimir Petrov. This imagery evokes an atmosphere of foreboding and mystery. We feel more and more that something terrible is about to happen.
I feel that this book has a more limited audience than some of the others on the short list. It is recommended for extension students and advanced readers. Also, it would probably appeal more to girls than boys. Adults who lived in the era of the fifties will enjoy reliving the history of that period.