The Red Word by Sarah Henstra
Publication date: March 13, 2018
Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat
Page count: 352
Star rating: 4/5
Karen, newly out of the dorms, just moved into a house with new roommates. The three women refer to their home as ‘Raghurst’ and identify as feminists with particularly strong views. Karen attends the marches and vigils held by the women’s center on campus, but she is a bit different from the girls she lives with. Karen begins dating Mike, a boy who is part of a fraternity on campus, GBC. Her loyalty then gets split between her roommates, who hate fraternities with all their being, and Mike, who loves his house and brothers. Following this, sexual assault cases against frat members, specifically GBC, begin arising. Raghurst becomes loud with conversations about rape culture on campus with even more vigor than before. Suddenly, the women’s center and school paper are working on pieces about sexual harassment and mentioning GBC. Karen knows rape is not the victim’s fault and that Mike’s fraternity brothers see women as pieces of meat, but she also recognizes her boyfriend clearly respects her body. Rape culture is a huge problem in colleges and Karen wants to be on the right side of history.
Thank you to Grove Press for sending me an advance copy of this title! I’m grateful I was able to get my hands on it before it was released to the public.
The biggest takeaway from The Red Word is it truly makes the reader think. Consider this: consent is not always black and white. For example, if someone manipulates a person into saying yes, it is not consenting. If someone blackmails a person into saying yes, it is not consenting. If someone is too drunk to know what they are saying yes to, it is not consenting. A reader may already know all of this, but The Red Word highlights the many ways in which rape in not black and white. This is something admirable, because such a topic is not easy to portray. Sarah Henstra did it well.
Karen’s roommates are a very interesting crew of women. Their views are pretty radical and they firmly stand by what they believe. One of them, Dyann, sometimes does not care if an individual suffers (by her own doing) if it means a system of people benefit. The other women do not quite agree with this logic and it creates a tension in their household and activism. Mike, too, is a unique character. He believes his frat brothers are good people, no matter what the university newspaper has to say. That being said, he does not like when Karen roams around the house alone at night. He seems to be nervous his brothers might harass or assault her while intoxicated. The Red Word is full of tension—tension within oneself, with one’s friends, with one’s community, etc. Despite that, this book was never uncomfortable.
The references to Greek history and ancient Greek and Roman texts are really cool. Karen is registered in a class that discusses women in Greek mythology and texts, so the novel incorporates some writing techniques like calling to a muse. For any nerd who loves The Odyssey, the opening lines, “Sing. O Goddess…”, will make you very excited. Sarah Henstra truly knows a lot about feminism in ancient writing.
Any feminist or person looking to learn more about rape culture will enjoy this book. Anyone who is both of these things AND likes Greek history will extra enjoy it. Karen has a few shocking college experiences that, unfortunately, are not uncommon. Rape culture is a horrible issue on college campuses right now, especially in Greek life. Fraternities are very much protected by their universities. The Red Word explores the ways in which consent is not completely black and white and how fighting against the system is both complicated and slippery.