The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

About the Book

Publisher: Grove Press  |  Release Date: March 13, 2018  |  Pages: 352
Genre: Adult, Contemporary  |  Format: eARC  |  Source: Publisher via Netgalley

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.

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My 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. Regardless this is an important and critical piece of fiction that I absolutely adored and highly recommend!

I received an advanced reader copy from NetGalley and the publisher, Grove Press, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. 

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