The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth towards new friends, lovers and life-altering ideas.
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.
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 Dylann 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.
Firstly, I’d like to point out that this book deals with issues surrounding consent and rape culture.
If you’ve read the blurb above, you’re probably heading to purchase the book already! There’s not a whole lot more I can tell you that will do the book any justice. I’ve got to be honest and say I found this review really difficult to write, for fear of not doing the book the justice it deserves.
I felt many things and I cried, laughed, cheered but what I did more than anything else is think, really think, about the themes that are covered within the covers of The Red Word and how urgent they are – consent, rape culture, the male gaze and sex-positivity.
There’s so much thinking to be done during this read and amongst other issues, how rape culture is perceived on campus and also the way rape culture is debated, which is something that isn’t leaving my mind.
The author openly talks about and gives us a credible picture of the aftermath of the stuff that goes on in GBC – of how girls and women are accused of “asking for it” or at least contributing in some way, both of which are just an excuse for the behaviour of the aggressors. Nothing is ever black and white and there are many shades of grey between the lines and I believe that Sarah Henstra brings these to us in a very convincing manner.
Does the end always justify the means? The lengths to which people will go in self-protect mode and the lengths others will go to make a point is under examination here.
I didn’t enjoy this book. But I knew going in that I wouldn’t and that’s okay. It’s not necessary to enjoy books to appreciate that they are essential. It’s a sobering, discussion-provoking read.
Sincere thanks go out to Anne Cater for including me on this blog tour and for bringing this book to my attention. Thanks also to Sarah Helstra and Sarah & Lisa of Tramp Press for my copy, which will now wait patiently on my bookshelf until my own children are old enough to read it.
Tramp Press is an independent publisher based in Dublin; recent successes include Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falther Wither, A Line Made by Walking) and Mike McCormack (Solar Bones). More information can be found here
This book was awarded the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.
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