The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

Paperback, 352 pages
Expected publication: March 13th 2018 by Grove Press, Black Cat

A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go, The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry–particularly at a fraternity called GBC. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central” and a prominent contributor to a list of date rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture–but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.

The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers, and life-altering ideas. With strains of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Alison Lurie’s Truth and Consequences, and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Sarah Henstra’s debut adult novel arrives on the wings of furies.

O sing of the American student body, glorious and young. We are the future!…Everyone on a university campus is equally young. We are all the same social class…We all wear the same clothes and listen to the same music…We are all giddy and hyperventilating in the superoxygenated atmosphere of attention and information and privilege and power. We all thought we were different but we weren’t. We all thought we were resisting something but we weren’t. We all thought that life would be like this forever but it wouldn’t. We were going to spend the rest of our lives trying and failing to re-create this feeling of urgency, of specialness, of being smack at the epicenter of everything important and real happening in the world. For the rest of our lives we would yearn for this feeling of exigency and belonging and fullness and passion. From here on in, it would be nostalgia.

Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word pulsates with the tangible feel of a truly undergraduate experience – in many ways, my experience anyway. From the scraping of coins together for packets of Ramen noodles to the dogged debates in the library over Starbucks on the merits of feminist ideology and the next paper due. All of the key players are present here: the “butch” ultra-feminist, the foreigner, the erudite professor whom all the smart girls look up to and yearn to be like, the frat boys, the rich kids, the students holding down part-time jobs and the free-spirited girls who make kissy-faces at taxi drivers then call them assholes and walk away; they’re all here. If you lived this undergraduate experience, you’ll feel at home here, wrapped in a Snuggie of, yeah, “nostalgia.” You’ll understand the references and won’t be shocked at how often the words “smoke” or “condom” or “rights” come up.

The above quote is a fantastic summation of this novel in all the best ways. The Red Word is about a year in the lives of a group of undergraduate students, and the catastrophes they catalyzed, exacerbated and lived within their “superoxygenated atmosphere of attention and information and privilege and power.” At the center of this story is Karen, a Canadian student on an American Ivy League campus her sophomore year. When Karen moves into “Raghurst,” a student house where a group of lesbian radical feminists live, and simultaneously starts dating a frat boy from GBC (better known as “Gang Bang Central” on campus), it is the spark that ignites the subsequent events; she is straddling a dangerous line between two houses who go to war over women’s rights versus patriarchal “brotherhood” – a war of the greater society as a whole. It’s about their year of learning, of trauma, of sexual exploration and viewing the world around them through their stanch lens of feminism.

“Frat boys like to share. You have to watch your back.”

Far beyond just being an ode to campus life, The Red Wordexplores the crevices of rape culture on college campuses and in society as a whole. It reaches into the nooks and crannies of words like “consent” and “consensual” and shows it all to us through the eyes of a group of young women so far from home, so close and yet so far from finding themselves. Sarah Henstra’s debut is intelligently done, intellectual, and very often witty. It is biting and often cringe-worthy, both theoretically and physically. But keep watching; keep reading. Never look away from this mirror. This novel puts the reader right in the midst of the Crog-wearing, Iliad-quoting erudites of a women-centric viewpoint, right in the middle of the bloom of self-awareness. (They’d hate me for saying that, wouldn’t they?)

It did tend toward the melodrama in areas, but doesn’t the college experience itself? Toward the end I was thinking, If I see one more melodramatic, theatrical proclamation, I’ll scream. (Oh Dyann, how you would splinter the spears and batter the bright shields! Stay, oh stay with me.) And yet, the subject matter here was so worthy of exploration. Frat culture and pack mentalities. The ethics of “victim blaming” –

*spoken in an existential cadence

If a girl goes into a frat party and gets herself drunk, does she deserve to be gang raped? * The politics of single parenthood for the woman – is she weak for “succumbing” to her circumstances, being “trampled by patriarchy,” for letting her parents pull her out of school, for embarking on single-parenthood of an unwanted baby? Or, is there another worthy argument at play here as well? You be the judge.

The Red Word was a fantastic debut novel from Henstra, which I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly college-aged females. If there was ever a novel to sit around and discuss ad nauseam, it’s this one. It raised brave questions and turned the typical “college trajectory into adulthood” story on its head. There was nothing predictable about this novel. And I thought that was for the best – because, is there ever really anything predictable about college or our life experiences after it? I think not. Henstra and The Red Word earned a strong 4 stars from the start and held them throughout. ****

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Sarah HenstraMy novel The Red Word is available March 2018 from Grove Atlantic (US) and ECW (Canada), and in 2019 from Tramp Press (UK). Mad Miss Mimic was published by Penguin Canada in 2015. I’m also an English professor and I teach courses in Fairy Tales & Fantasy and Gothic Horror.

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