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Book Review: Rouge by Mona Awad

When the beauty industry is the big bad wolf.

In a world where girls in school uniforms diligently apply creams and ointments to stave off the signs of ageing, the pervasive influence of beauty regimens on today’s youth is unmistakable. Canadian novelist Mona Awad often holds a mirror up to society, satirising our deep-seated obsessions. Her latest work, Rouge, which was published this September, delves into this societal fixation, presenting our relentless pursuit of beauty and youth through the lens of a haunting modern-day fairytale.

Rouge follows skincare-obsessed Belle, as she navigates the abrupt loss of her mother. Returning home for the funeral and estate matters, she unravels the complexities of her strained mother-daughter relationship, unveiling the root of her fixation with appearance. As Belle’s relentless pursuit of perfection threatens to erode her sense of self, her journey begins to mirror that of her mother’s tragic fate.

With Snow White as the primal motif, Awad artfully weaves references to various fairytales throughout the narrative, casting an eerie and haunting tone that intertwines with Belle’s childhood memories. Although seemingly simplistic, Awad’s use of overt symbolism is an intentional commentary on the transparency of societal values. By directly poking fun at the beauty industry, Awad illuminates the absurdity of valuing surface over substance. Through irony and overstatement, she highlights the shallowness and absurdity of society’s fixation on appearance, exemplified by the idea at Rouge that “becoming one’s Most Magnificent Self” equates to attaining the highest level of beauty. This raises the crucial question: How much are we willing to sacrifice to chase these unattainable ideals?

Awad skillfully employs Gothic literary devices to enhance her satire and irony. These elements immerse readers in a world of eerie fascination and psychological intrigue. Within this Gothic framework, she uses the recurring theme of light versus dark to explore the  damaging impact of Western beauty standards. Belle, the protagonist, shares a half-Turkish identity, intriguingly, with Awad herself. This facet of her identity becomes a focal point, especially in relation to her darker complexion. Her envy of her mother’s whiteness is apparent throughout as she inadvertently mixes up words, highlighting her association of whiteness with beauty: “There was a whiteness […] Brightness I meant to say.”

In a promotional video shared by Waterstones, Mona Awad expressed her admiration for the contemporary Gothic masterpiece, American Psycho, highlighting its “complete commitment to a madman’s consciousness.” This source of inspiration undeniably resonates in Awad’s work, where her exceptional talent lies in submerging readers into the intricate depths of Belle’s mind, offering an unfiltered glimpse into the character’s thoughts and her all-consuming fixation on appearance. Despite the peculiarity of the elements she presents, Awad’s remarkable descriptive prowess enables us to vividly envision her narrative, even when we lack any point of reference.

However, this somewhat dreamlike narrative can become repetitive at times, with certain chapters overstaying their welcome. Some trimming could enhance the pacing without sacrificing the essence of the story. Nevertheless, the novel truly shines in its conclusion (in contrast to her earlier work, Bunny). It skilfully ties up loose ends while also leaving a few intriguing questions lingering, ensuring the novel remains a thought-provoking presence long after you’ve turned the final page.As the Beauty & Personal Care market’s revenue soars to a staggering £515 billion in 2023, Mona Awad’s Rouge adeptly mirrors the pressing societal issues of this era. Awad’s dark fairytale casts a compelling spell, leaving readers both chilled to the bone and completely captivated. In the end, the book itself is as alluring as its elusive beauty products.

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