Thursday, 21 September 2017

Book Review: The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington

Hello you, how's things?

If you're looking for something new to read, Christmas gift for a book lover, particularly if they're a young adult with a fondness for fashion - then don't budge until you've had a look at The Red Ribbon:

What is The Red Ribbon?
The Red Ribbon, is a young adult novel set in a WW2 concentration camp, and is the first novel by fashion historian Lucy Adlington. 

If you’ve been with me here, or on Instagram, for a while you’ll have heard me mention Lucy before as I've attended several of the fashion history presentations she delivers through her company The History Wardrobe. All of the talks I've seen, such as Great War Fashion, Gothic for Girls, Fairytale Fashion and Jolly Hockeysticks, have shone a light on the role clothing has played in women’s history, and they've each used the politics and practicalities of costume to explore larger ideas about women's role in society. (I always attend these events with my Mam and sister and – it's like my sister says – we go in thinking we’re just going to look at clothes … and come out with our militant feminism nicely burnished!)

And, unsurprisingly, with The Red Ribbon Lucy Adlington continues in exploring those same themes, this time inspired by the dressmakers of Auschwitz. While there may be some slightly fairytale-esque elements to the narrative - the idea that there was a sewing workshop inside a concentration camp - is not one of them. It's is based on true - if little known - historical events, because, yes, even in the darkest of man-made places there was silk, and satin, and ribbon. And it's there that Ella - the heroine of Adlington's story - learns that being chosen to serve the fashion whims of the wives of SS officers is one way to survive.

How does The Red Ribbon handle the infinitely dark setting of the story?
Well, I'd say Adlington handles it carefully, respectfully and at a (I'm guessing) deliberate remove.

The book is published under the Young Adult category, therefore - while never white-washing any of the brutal realities - this is, understandably, not a story about the darkest moments. I would say it's aim is to educate younger readers about the atrocities, but in a safe space, a self-contained narrative, with a feisty teenage leading character alongside them every step of the way.

As a 41 year old perhaps I'm not the ideal reader, yet I still found much to enjoy here, with a story that - like the rest of Adlington's work - is compelling, illuminating, ... and female.

How is the book structured? 
The narrative focuses on Ella's experiences of the camp:

  • her recruitment to the sewing room, 
  • her progress and attitude towards dressmaking for their captors, 
  • and on towards well ... that would be a spoiler wouldn't it? Perhaps I'll leave you to find out the rest for yourself ... 

The blurb on the preview copy puts it in the same category as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Diary of Anne Frank, but - not having read either of  those - it put me in mind of two other Holocaust-related narratives: Primo Levi's The Periodic Table and Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes.
  • In The Periodic Table Levi tells different stories about his life, including surviving the Holocaust, using elements from the Periodic Table as building blocks to connect together his life experiences, with each of the stories in the book taking the name of an element.
  • Similarly Adlington colour-codes each of the book's sections, Green, Yellow, Red, Grey, White and Pink, with each colour describing not only Ella's current dress-making project , but also the colour of the life around the camp.
  • The colours, plus the focus on the dressmaking itself - rather than the entire history of the concentration camps - is a well thought out method of approaching the subject matter. 
  • It takes what is vast, unfathomable and beyond general comprehension - and zooms in, and in, an still further, until we don't need to try to understand the incomprehensible, we just need to pay attention to this one single aspect. It's in absorbing the details that we can appreciate the wider picture.

As for the Edmund de Waal similarity: 
  • like in The Hare With Amber Eyes - which tells the Holocaust through the experiences of members of author's family - The Red Ribbon gives us someone (albeit a fictional someone based on various true accounts) to relate to within a story usually told in terms of millions
  • We get to know an individual. 
  • And, in this case, it's an individual who loves fashion magazines, who resents authority figures, who hopes her grandparents are OK, who feels the excitement of a new friendship. 

And - if current and future generations are to continue to heed lessons from the Holocaust - stories such as this, which personalise the past, are always going to be valuable.

So how is it 'fairytale-esque' then? 
Well - despite being at the centre of one of the defining events of the 20th Century - Ella's world is very small, and, in the heightened conditions of life in the camp she's very much a fairytale heroine, a kind of Cinderella trying to find a way out of her restrictive lifestyle. 

Furthermore the writing style is, at times, almost fable-like in its choice of language. 
  • For example Ella talks of being on 'a List', and how the List is why some people end up in the camp while others don't. Yet, as a child, she doesn't have a full explanation as to what's happening, it's all experienced as rather mythical and story-like.  

But, really, who would know exactly what was happening? 
  • We look back on that time with hindsight, with documents, photographs, films made which reveal the scale of the atrocities; 
  • we now know the terminology, the details, the locations, the numbers. 
  • But if we were there, if we were like Ella - stripped of everything and fighting - or dressmaking - for our lives - how much would we really know about what was going on? How could we know? 

The device of the naive narrator who gradually begins to realise what's happening will likely impact younger readers who may not themselves entirely understand that period of history. And as not everything is clearly spelled out from the offset, they may be drawn into Ella's story without fully appreciating which story it is she's telling. Once they're involved, once they care about Ella, the story then gradually begins to unfold the genuine horrors, but with care.

Who is this book for?
  • Anyone (like me) who likes learning about history through fiction. The idea that there were dressmakers of Auschwitz is a grotesquely fascinating one, and is worth learning about whether through non-fictional accounts, or stories such as The Red Ribbon.
  • Anyone who likes 'a good story'. One they can get absorbed into and want to follow through to find out what happens at the end. 
  • A young adult with a passion for self-expression through fashion. The book (and indeed Adlington's work with The History Wardrobe in general) has a lot to say about the dismissive attitude that 'it's just clothes ... it's not important.' Because the fact that people made space for dressmaking inside a living hell proves that the social messages we tell through them mean they're absolutely not 'just clothes'.  
  • And anyone looking for a refreshing take on inclusion. I'm pretty sure that it's not just my interpretation, and that there was a (very) subtle nod to same-sex attraction within the narrative. I won't spoil it for anyone, but I'm pretty sure there was a frisson, a spark which wasn't made out to be a huge deal, was not overly laboured as a defining issue but was just a light touch, fresh, natural, and simply there as a part of the story. 

The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington is published by Hot Key Books (on September 21st 2017).

What do reckon then? Can you think of someone who'd enjoy The Red Ribbon?
  • Does it help you cross off a name from your Christmas gift list?
  • Or does it give you a title to add to your own Christmas Wish List?!
  • Does it remind you of something you think we all need to add to our reading lists?
  • Does it make you want to find out more about the real stories which inspired the novel?
Let me know in the comments or via any of my online homes: Instagram * Twitter Facebook * Website

And you can catch up with Lucy Adlington via the History Wardrobe Facebook page or on Twitter @historywardrobe #theredribbon
Happy reading! Speak soon.


Disclosure: I was sent a copy of The Red Ribbon in return for a review.  When I saw that Lucy's publishers were seeking reviewers I put my name forward, as being familiar with her work already (through her presentations and her non-fiction book about Great War Fashion) it seemed an ideal fit. I've not been asked to discuss or link to anything in particular.All of the words are my own (well, I didn't invent them, but I did arrange them in the order I wanted, to say the things I wanted to say!)


  1. I don't really head towards the young adult section of bookstores (could this be because I'm four times the age of their target audience?) but this sounds like an interesting book that crosses age groups, maybe a more mature reader reads it on a different level and with different background information reads it slightly differently to a teenager. This could easily end up on my 'to read' list!

    1. Teenagers may come to the book with a less experienced perspective; adults will see what's going on sooner but so many have told me they were drawn in by the story regardless of the fact it is marketed as teen fiction

  2. Your review is very thoughtful and comprehensive, though I am not sure how drawn to read it I am. Interesting that it seems to be pulling readers from a wide range of ages.


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