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John Stewart Wynne’s The Red Shoes (Magnus), set in contemporary New York City, is a beautifully dark queer re-visioning of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same title. Wynne immediately engages the reader with finely detailed descriptions, nuanced character development, and an air of mystery that makes the 428-page text read like a novella.
John Laith, immersed in grief as a result of the death of his boyfriend of eleven years, Frank, helps a young man who has been the victim of a brutal rape. To repay Laith for providing clothing, shelter, and a bus ticket, the young man gives Laith the only thing he has, a pair of red shoes, and thus Laith’s journey into obsession, lust, and uncertainty commences. Wynne takes the reader on the erotic emotional and psychological journey endured, and sometimes enjoyed, by the protagonist. Laith searches for a relief from grief and leaves no stone unturned—even those that should have been left unexplored.
With the support of friends, Laith senses that he is beginning to move on from his grief, not realizing that the process is being driven by a far darker force with a darker purpose than one of healing. Laith distances himself from his old friends and the grievance group to which he belongs and instead begins to keep company with the likes of Silvio, a retired law enforcement officer; Crewe, a married multimillionaire who lives in a penthouse overlooking Central Park West with his wife and daughter; Maxo, the owner of a nightclub; Bailey, a bouncer at Maxo’s nightclub. Venturing throughout New York City, Laith mingles with the rich in Gatsby-like decadence in Manhattan and drug-addicted “sleazeballs” in dilapidated apartments alike.
The Red Shoes is rife with allusions to Geoffrey Chaucer, William Blake, and John Milton, to name only three of the infamous figures referenced. Readers who are familiar with Blake’s writings will likely note Wynne’s integration of Blake’s mythology into the re-visioning of the The Red Shoes. Such allusions seem to work to situate the novel amongst the long tradition of story (re)telling. This arguably postmodernist move helps to highlight the many intersections between the characters in the novel. That which is seemingly happenstance is revealed to be part of a darker plan. Good and evil become a matter of choices and the company one keeps. With each new person he meets, Laith encounters new desires and obsessions. Laith notes at one point that he “felt [he] was rejoining some part of the world [he’d] lost, a world of abundance where [he] now felt totally present.” The question is, is this presence a good thing?
Wynne elegantly blends spirituality, sensuality, obsession, lust, drug (ab)use, as well as interspersed social and cultural commentary in The Red Shoes. Despite the beauty of Wynne’s language throughout the novel, there are many scenes that are not for the faint of heart, including the aforementioned rape of the young man and several interactions between Laith and other characters in the novel. Some of the explicitly visceral sections in the novel led me to take a break from reading. The intricacy and intrigue of the story, however, brought me back.
The Red Shoes
By John Stewart Wynne
Paperback, 9781936833429, 400 pp.