“Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word will get you fuming, laughing, cheering, and most of all, thinking.”Cosmopolitan
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 revelryparticularly 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 culturebut 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.
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. Solid 4.5 stars. This is one of the most nuanced and beautifully complex novels tackling gender politics that I have read. Artfully written, I felt like I was an unseen spectator of the events that unfolded as Karen begins to unpack layers of institutionalized sexism and misogyny. The novel navigates between the present day and fifteen years in the past when the main character Karen was attending an Ivy League university in the 1990s. During her sophomore year, she moves into a new house with a group of feminists while at the same time embarking on a new relationship with a boy that has pledged at a frat house notorious for its subjugation and inbred misogyny of women. She tries to reconcile what her friends believe of the fraternity system as a whole with what she witnesses firsthand, with how she is treated versus how women as a whole are treated. After all, she is "blue" and therefore "off limits." Consequence, and those at fault being actually held accountable for their actions, are themes that the four women struggle with while they try to navigate a world stacked against them and improve it for the benefit of all. Do the ends justify the means? "Society sets up these rules and regulations to so-called protect women, but at the same time, everyone kind of expects a woman to be violated at any moment. If she gets raped, or killed, or beaten or whatever, then okay, a rule has been broken, but it's seen as kind of a natural order for that to happen because she's... permeable" I found the "present" writing a bit choppy, and the navigation between timeframes at times was jarring to read. For me, I think the novel would have served better without the present day narration as it does not really enhance the story (and at times it detracts from it) - it merely sets up the story for remembering the past.
For a conference, Karen returns to the town she attended college many years before. It is not a pleasant return since the place is connected to sad memories. Going back there brings it all again to her mind. Her roommates, nice girls at first, whose plan got completely wrong. Her then boy-friend and his fraternity GBC who always treated her nicely but also had another, darker side. The teacher they all admired in their gender studies classes. And the scandal that shock the whole town. Sarah Henstra’s novel tells different tales with only one story. First of all, we have the strong protagonist Karen who as a Canadian always stands a bit outside her fellow students’ circles. She doesn’t have the same background; neither does she have the rich parents who provide her with all she needs not does she come with the intellectual package that most of the others seem to possess. The need to earn money to support herself keeps her from leading the same life as they do. This also brings her into the special situation between the groups who soon find themselves at war. The central topic, however, is how college students deal with sex. On the one hand, we have the partying during which much alcohol and all kinds of drugs are consumed which makes the young people reckless and careless. On the other hand, we have the planned drugging of young women with Rohypnol to abused them. There is a third perspective, represented by the academic intelligentsia: the classic image of the woman as victim, portrayed in history and literature throughout the centuries and which did not change in more than two thousand years. “The Red Word” could hardly be more relevant and up-to-date in the discussions we have seen all over the word about male dominance and indiscriminate abuse of their stronger position. Sarah Henstra does not just foreshadow what happens at the student houses, she openly talks about the rape that happens there. And she does provide a credible picture of what happens afterwards, of how women are accused of having contributed or even asked for it, of lame excuses for the male behaviour and of the psychological effect these experiences have on the students – both, male and female. It is not just black and white, there are many shadows and motives behind their actions, Henstra integrates them convincingly. A felicitous novel with a very important story to tell.