The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

Consent. Rape culture. The male gaze. Sex-positivity. The Red Word asks a bold question: what if women weren’t content to wait for the next assault to take action? What if they got tired of the his-word-against-hers stalemates? Set against the sex wars of the 1990s and the birth of third-wave feminism, the result is a smart, dark, take-no-prisoners look at the extremes to which ideology can go.

If you’re looking for an intense, thought-provoking read about rape culture and feminism, this is it. It’s scary how far things go in this book, but it does a good job of blurring the lines between right and wrong, victim and victimized – confusing the reader into re-thinking what they might before have assumed was obvious.

Karen is in her sophomore year at university and finds herself living between two extremes. She lives at Raghurst with four other female students who draw her in with their “intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit”. They convince her to sign up for a feminist mythology class with an adored professor. On the other extreme, Karen spends a lot of her free time at a male fraternity with her boyfriend, who is one of the “brothers”. This particular fraternity has the initials GBC and is known as “Gang Bang Central”.

“Those brotherly bonds depend on our debasement… It’s not that rape is a risk of frat culture. Rape is a basic necessity of frat culture.”

(As an aside, I was interested in what fraternities and sororities were all about and why they are so much less prevalent in Canada. Here’s an article I found comparing fraternities in Canada vs. the U.S.)

At first, Karen thinks she’s got it all under control. Until she learns what her roommates are up to, and what they have done. Now people are suffering, and Karen doesn’t know what to do. Are the right people even the ones paying the price for her roommates’ actions? All the feminist mythology classes in the world can’t help Karen with her dilemma.

It’s not fatal when it’s a shallow dive. Was that the sum of my philosophy?… Maybe all I wanted, all along, was to dabble, to dip toes only, to skim for dross instead of plunging deep. I wanted to wade the shallows and watch while others drowned.

The book starts off with Karen in later years, planning to fly down to her alma mater to attend a conference related to her career. She gets a message from one of her old Raghurst roommates that another one of their roommates has died and her memorial service is planned for the same time Karen will be at the conference. These sections with the older Karen are sparse compared to the rest of the story, but I found that having the story told from the “looking back” perspective helped me feel less bothered by the younger generation.

I don’t normally go in for books about university-aged kids; their antics and drama usually grate on my nerves. And, although this was still the case at times, I felt the story called for it. There was purpose behind the drama in their lives and the endless loop of parties and alcohol and drugs and parties and alcohol and drugs… (I’m going to make sure my kids have NO spending money when they go to university!)

I did enjoy the fact that Karen went to university around the same time as I did (mid-90s). Although, to be clear, my university experience was nothing like Karen’s. Honestly, I don’t know how the kids in the book ever got any work done. Or even stayed alive!

Another aspect of this kind of story – this kind of life – is the privilege behind it. In this story in particular, many of the students come from very well-to-do families, some of them already knowing they have a job lined up in the family business after they graduate. They’re used to having things handed to them, used to having their messes cleaned up for them, used to being able to do what they want without consequences.

By now you probably have a good sense as to whether or not you want to read this book. (I suspect some readers will jump all over it while others will stay far away.) So I won’t say much more, except that some terrible things happen, poor choices are made, there are many regrets and a lot of damage is done. The book is well written and compelling. You will shake your head, scratch your head, hold your head… but most of all you will have to use your head to figure out what you think of it all. What does it all mean to you? What would you have done? Where would you draw the line?

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, at 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.

Thank you to ECW Press for sending me an ARC of this book!

Further reading:

Visit Sarah Henstra’s website for her bio and a list of reviews and praise for The Red Word.



30 thoughts on “The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

  1. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    When I first started reading your review I was reminded of the recent books Red Clocks and The Power (I’ve not read them yet but intend to.) But this sounds more reality based/less speculative than either of those. I don’t think this is for me – like you, I am not too interested in college-aged characters usually – but you did a great job as always reviewing it. Oh, and the thought of my son being in a fraternity terrifies me. I went to a college that deliberately didn’t have sororities and fraternities.

    • Naomi says:

      This is definitely reality-based, which probably makes it even scarier. I’m glad that we don’t have to worry about fraternities and sororities so much here – frosh week is bad enough!
      Red Clocks and The Power are also on my radar!

  2. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds like a tough read. As a UK reader, fraternities are something of a mystery to me although their antics may not seem so extreme to someone who has an Oxbridge background. Whenever I read about them in American novels their rites send a chill down my spine, that and the terrible need to belong to one for some people. Great review, Naomi.

    • Naomi says:

      There were definitely parts of this book that were hard to read… I was often cringing and reading with one eye open (as though that would cut the discomfort down by half). There was also a part that shocked me. Well, there were more than one shocking parts, but some you can see coming. One of them I did not.
      It’s a great book for anyone interested in this topic!

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    This sounds like a great “issues” book for book clubs. I’m generally drawn to books set on college campuses, and I like the fact that it’s narrated by a woman looking back from later in life. It goes on the TBR!

  4. Hannah says:

    Great review!
    I have been thinking about this book a lot since I first encountered it. I don’t know if I want to read it or not. Because while I am sure it is brilliant, it might be too much for me.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s hard for me to say. It’s an excellent book , but it does include graphic scenes of sex, violence, and substance abuse. (It’s actually the substance abuse that makes me feel sick – I have 3 teenagers.) You could borrow it from the library and skim through it to get an idea?
      Thanks for reading!

  5. buriedinprint says:

    I feel like ECW has quite a few titles that tap into this kind of energy (I’m thinking in this moment of Boring Girls by Sara Taylor but I can’t think of another just now) and sometimes it grates on me too. It can be pretty insular without another perspective (and sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re seeing anything new, learning any other side of things) but it sounds like that’s satisfied with the later-years’ perspective. I do like books that make you question where you would draw your own personal lines if you were a character in that story’s unfolding!

    • Naomi says:

      Because I’m very different from the main character, I know I would have drawn the line a long time ago. But, if I imagine that I’m her (which I have no trouble doing), then there are so many things to think about and worry about and wonder if I did the right thing or if the right thing was done on time… and on and on. It’s an excellent book in that sense!

  6. madamebibilophile says:

    Having read and enjoyed 2 novels set in mid 90s student life recently, I’m wondering if I should make it a triple! Like you, this was the period I was at uni too, clearly our peers are now publishing novels 😉

  7. annelogan17 says:

    Oh yes, I was chatting with someone from ECW on Monday and they talked about this book-how timely! I’d be interested to compare what feminism now is like vs. feminism in the 90s, would you say it’s very different?

    • Naomi says:

      It’s hard to say in general, because the book is so specifically set on campus. But the girls/women of Raghurst are hardcore feminists. Put together with their youth and inexperience, however, this does not work out so well for them.

  8. FictionFan says:

    I don’t think this is for me, but I enjoyed your review. I’ve always been a bit horrified whenever I’ve read anything about fraternities and sororities – I wonder if there any where people behave well! Haha – maybe you should make your kids go to a university close enough that you can force them to live at home… 😉

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a good question… whether there are any fraternities and sororities that are well-behaved? I’d like to think their behaviour is exaggerated in books, but I fear it’s not. It really does sound horrifying!
      Luckily for me, we don’t have many here in Canada, so I don’t think I have to worry too much about that. There are lots of other things to worry about, though… 😉

  9. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    You probably already know that I’m one of those who would stay far away from this book.

    But I was very interested in the Huffington Post article. Fraternities and sororities are a bit of U.S. culture that I hope never crosses the border.

    Who knew the beneficial side effects of lowering the drinking age?

  10. Grab the Lapels says:

    I’m so familiar with fraternities. I’ve been in frat houses. I’ve been to a frat party. I had frat-boy friends. I lived across the street from a frat for two years and was never surprised to find a shopping cart up in the tree the morning after a party. This is not to say I agree with or support fraternities. Just, sometimes the right friend, who wasn’t a creep, happened to be in a frat. I feel like there are better ways to connect, make friends, do charity work (many frats claim they are charity-driven or networks for graduates and students in the frat). If you join a club instead, the party element is often removed. I don’t know much about sororities except they tend to have a problem with the plumbing quite frequently. The pressure to stay thin leads to a lot of eating disorders of the kind that end up in the bathroom.

    • Naomi says:

      Ugh… that side of sororities sounds awful. In the book, the character from the sorority mentioned that part of their function is safety. That seems kind of backwards. (Not that safety isn’t a good idea – just that women shouldn’t have to feel like they need to be kept safe.)

  11. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Well done on getting through the more shocking parts (albeit, one eye closed), I’m not sure I could read this right now, I don’t think my senses could cope with the stimulation of imagining such things. I need to stay focused on the realities of getting teens through high school which already offers more challenges than I ever thought it would.

  12. Elena says:

    This one sounds fantastic and totally up my alley! I have been writing more and more about consent and rape culture and though it’s hard (I had to take breaks from reading Courtney Summer’s All the Rage and Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It) I think it’s a necessary exercise in contemporary society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s