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The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

BOTTOM LINE: A must read but brutal

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publication Date: 13 March 2018
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“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.”

My Thoughts: The Red Word is not an easy book to love, let alone read, but that is, I believe, Sarah Henstra‘s intention. After all, the act of rape is violent and “uncomfortable” for victims; discussing rape culture, especially on university campuses should be equally so for all involved. In that, she succeeds because The Red Word is indeed difficult reading.

Some of this deliberate discomfort by Ms. Henstra has to do with the structure of the novel. Set up in the Greek style of storytelling, there are no chapter breaks per se. Rather, she structures each section by its Greek description. For example, one section is “deux ex machina” while an earlier section is “dicaeologia” or defense plea. These section headings, which also extend to the separation of the story into books, have the purpose of hinting to readers at what is to come in the story without giving away details. To have such deliberate directions about one’s reading placed directly into the story is disconcerting if only because it is unfamiliar. It is a bit like a stranger handing you a brand-new phone and walking away. You like the phone but don’t quite know what to do with it or why you were handed one.

The characters are equally disrupting. They are unabashedly unashamed of their attitudes, behaviors, and intellect, priding themselves on their support of fellow women and the women’s movement in general. In fact, one might easily say that they prefer to use shock and awe as their primary method of proving any point they want to make, whether that be testing one’s acceptance of gay relationships, casual nudity, use of drugs, or their suspicions regarding the preying on women that may or may not occur during frat parties. With Karen’s entrance into Raghurst’s world, Ms. Henstra also uses class differences to further unease, hinting at the idea that feminism and fighting against a rape culture on campus is something about which only the privileged students with no need to work have time to do. Karen, as the only resident of Raghurst to need a job to help pay for things finds herself caught in the middle of both cultures with no desire to improve the situation and a naivete that is a challenge to accept as natural. All of this combines into characters to whom it is difficult to relate and about whom you don’t care in the slightest.

While Ms. Henstra deliberately created characters you won’t like and structured her story in a way that can make for awkward reading, she saves her strongest punch of provocativeness for the language she uses throughout the novel. Throughout the story, Ms. Henstra spares no one with her descriptions or choice of scene. Intellectual conversations between the characters are frank and unapologetic in their academic nature. Sex, consensual and otherwise, plays a large role throughout the story, and she depicts it all without embellishment. These are sex scenes, not love-making or some equally gentle euphemism. These are sex at its most primal and basic – the rutting of young adults on the cusp of adulthood, frantic to extract as much pleasure and experience out of college while they can. Some of these scenes you see as an observer, but others are as a participant, which force you to experience the same fear and disgust as the first-person narrator. If you are squeamish, dislike frank sex scenes, or cannot read about rape or rape scenes, this is not the book for you.

The thing is though that no matter how uneasy you are reading The Red Word, the point Ms. Henstra is attempting to make is an important one, especially in this #metoo era. As the women of Raghurst turn to ever more shocking ways to draw attention to their fight, Ms. Henstra all but slaps you in the face with the warning that we are our own worst enemy when it comes to the battle of the sexes. Not only is it too easy to lose focus or go too far in the fight for justice, other women are more likely to derail your efforts than men. Women are quicker to judge other women for what they wear and how they act. Women are quicker to side with men if a situation gets out of hand. Fighting a rape culture of any sort can be successful but only when all women work together to drive the changes. Just one woman who does not agree makes the fight that much more difficult. It is a simple message, but the way in which Ms. Henstra establishes it is powerful and provocative making The Red Word a necessary novel for the times in which we live.

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