Author: Sarah Henstra
Publisher: Black Cat
First Published: 13 March 2018
Rating: 5 stars
“This is the trouble with myth. Each of us scoops out our own rotten core and spits it out on stage. We stand around the heap of smoking corpses and declare it fate.”
I will start by saying that I was given an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own.
Karen’s sophomore year begins with a back-to-school revelry at a fraternity called GBC. When she wakes the next morning on the lawn of Raghurst, the home of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in on-campus feminist activism. GBC is notorious 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. Ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit 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.
Wow, I’m not sure what I was excepting from this book but it ended up being way more than I could ever imagine. It was a heavy read full of deep, dark topics but at the same time, I flew through it. This is one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
I will say if you find rape and sexual assault a triggering topic, I would not recommend this one.
The Red Word follows our protagonist Karen Huls and opens 14 years after her fateful sophomore year. We see her university days as a flashback, brought on by the death of her college housemate, Stephanie McNamara. The majority of the story is set in her time at university during the mid-Nineties. The few sections set in 2010 are just enough to highlight how these events have shaped her as a person.
As a photographer, Karen finds comfort behind the lenses of her camera, in observing the world around her. It plays into her role as the all-seeing narrator type figure. Also, I wouldn’t say she’s the most active of characters. Most of the time she’s she is forced into the action because of the feuding side. On one hand she is the girlfriend of GBC brothers and on other, she is housemate to a group of radical feminists, but both help to make up her identity. Having Karen stuck between these opposing camps helps to showcase all sides of the debate revolving around rape and consent.
What enchanted me the most about this novel was how much the subject matter of Karen’s Women and Myth class spills into the telling of the story. In particular how much the narrative reflects Homer and The Iliad. Throughout the novel, the two are described in relation to one another. Brimming underneath the surface everyday campus life is a war. A war held between the Women Studies students—who are demanding a change to the culture surrounding fraternities—and the brothers of GBC—who don’t see their partying ways or how they treat women as an issue.
Sprinkled throughout are phrases that mimic the opening of Homer’s Odyssey. Line such as, “O soulwithered Stephanie, keeper of all our sorrows.” It’s almost as though Karen is describing their fate, one, which we watch, unfold throughout the year.
Henstra’s writing style is stunning and I was hooked from the very first line. There’s lyrical tone, one adopted from the Greek classics. This lyricism is paired with the blunt edge of the violence of her descriptions. At times it was hard to read because she never did shy away from depicting sexual assault. I found her use of mythic metaphors quite powerful. It served to highlight that people haven’t changed much between the days of antiquity to now.
Henstra portrays a raw and unflinching look at university life. Drug use, excessive drinking, sex and rape is all through interspersed with discussions of feminist theory and myth. I adored this novel and I’m sure there is so much I missed. I will absolutely be re-reading this for years to come.