Source: Review copy
Publication: 21st March 2019 from Tramp Press
The myths don’t have a clue what to do with women. They have nothing to say about us whatsoever. We need to build our own f**king mythology. When Ivy League university student Karen wakes up after a frat party on the lawn of a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in anti-frat activism on campus.
One frat house, GBC, is especially notorious, with several brothers named on a list of date rapists by female students. Despite continuing to party at GBC and even dating one of the brothers, Karen is seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women. As she finds herself caught between two increasingly polarised camps, her feminist housemates believe they have hit on the perfect way to bring down the fraternity and expose rape culture … but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.
The Red Word offers a lyrical yet eyes-wide-open account of the epic clash between fraternities time-honoured right to party and young women’s demands for sexual safety and respect. With strains of The Marriage Plot and reminiscent of the work of Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt and Tom Wolfe, The Red Word arrives on the Wings of Furies.
Well this was a book that gave me a lot of pause for thought and is still rattling around in my head as I argue back and forth with myself about its messages. “Arrives on the Wings of Furies” is spot on. The Red Word is not an easy book, but it is an imortant one and it frames its points in the context of Greek myths perhaps to show us that these questions have been with us for a very long time.
The bulk of the novel takes place on an American college campus in the mid-90’s, with a portion looking back to those days from the present, and asks a bold question: what if women weren’t content to wait for the next assault to take action?
Karen Huls is Canadian. Unlike some of her colleague students, she is not independently wealthy and has to work on campus at her American College to earn her keep. She is intelligent; looking to be challenged, wanting to learn. Karen manages to inveigle her way into her preferred accommodation – a house share with four radical feminists who were looking for a share with a committed feminist.
Dyann is very much the ringleader, a lesbian activist. Steph and Marie Jeanne are also lesbians and Charla is bisexual. Karen, who is heterosexual, joins the house fresh from having had sex with a boy from a nearby fraternity house, Gamma Beta Chi, which is known around campus as Gang Bang Central.
Karen loves the sense of being with these radical feminists, debating ideas and discussing the patriarchal hegemony, but she is not quite of them. They name the house Raghurst and Karen is soon also taking a class with Professor Sylvia Esterhazy , whom all the housemates idolise, on Women and Myth. Themes from these studies are mirrored in the misogyny the women see on the campus.
Karen is now sleeping regularly with that same frat boy, and staying overnight in the GBC house quite often. She thinks of herself as a barrier between the two houses, not quite No Man’s land, but Switzerland, certainly; a neutral force. In fact, she mirrors more Helen of Troy on whom she is focussing her academic studies; passive, yet central to a massive downfall.
Being ‘the girlfriend’ enables her to see for herself the rank and horrible ways in which the boys conduct themselves; the terrible things they say about women and the worse ways they behave with them. This is ignorant, and not simply sexist but entitled rampant sexuality grabbing at and demeaning women at every opportunity. It is a life of drink, drugs and debauchery without consequences. Karen is capable of partying just as hard but the frat boys won’t touch her because she’s “a girlfriend” and thus deemed off limits. In short, this is rape culture running riot.
At the centre of this behaviour is Bruce, a golden haired demi-god to whom Karen is inexorably attracted. She finds herself both condemning what she sees and at the same time, making excuses for some of it. There’s a lot of victim blaming doing the rounds.
Her house mates, however, are in no doubt that this is intolerable behaviour and they hatch a plan to expose it for what it is to the wider campus and outside world.
When everything goes horribly wrong, each character must consider their own role and why things happened the way they did. It will not be pretty and along the way some idols will be broken forever.
The Red Word is beautifully written and sensitively done, although it discusses rape uncompromisingly and appropriately. Sarah Henstra writes beautifully and her characters are flawed and authentic. She tackles difficult and divisive issues with thought-provoking prose and Homeric analogies that work.
Verdict: Well written, deeply thought –provoking and very relevant to the #metoo generation.
Sarah Henstra is a writer and professor, specializing in 20th century British fiction and teaching at Ryerson. She’s a board member of Canadian Creative Writers and Programs (CCWWP), and is on the steering committee of the 2016 Canadian Writers Summit. Sarah teach courses in the novel, the Gothic, fairy tales, women’s fiction, and creative writing. She lives and works in Toronto. The Red Word is her adult fiction debut.