The Red Wordby Sarah Henstra
“The Red Word is the smartest, most provocative novel I’ve read in a long time.” —Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and Nine Inches
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.
“An aesthetically arresting interrogation of rape culture…timely and brilliant.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Set in the 1990s, The Red Word interrogates the prevailing political preoccupations of that time: gender politics, third-wave feminism, and consent . . . A timely and nuanced dissection of rape culture.”—Booklist
“An incisive campus novel . . . [The Red Word] raises essential questions surrounding class privilege, rape, and gendered power dynamics on campus.”—Publishers Weekly
“The Red Word is set in the 1990s but speaks directly to the present feminist moment.
Sarah Henstra takes us into two worlds: that of Women’s Studies classes and lesbian pagan rituals, and of frat boys and S&M theme parties. As I watched Karen struggle with politics, power, and her own culpability in the fallout of it all, I could not put this book down.” —Darcey Steinke, author of Suicide Blonde and Sister Golden Hair
“The Red Word is the smartest, most provocative novel I’ve read in a long time. Sarah Henstra dives headlong into some murky, turbulent waters—gender politics, campus sexual assault, complicity, moral responsibility—and emerges with a book that’s as shocking as it is essential.” —Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and Nine Inches
I squinted up at a shadow blocking out the sun. A man was standing over me. He wore faded jeans and a huge oval belt buckle etched with a triple X. I lifted my elbow to my brow and the man became a woman, a girl my age. If I’d learned anything last year at college, I’d learned that just because someone was wearing a military crew cut and a white T-shirt tight across her flat chest and had a pack of cigarettes folded into the sleeve of the T-shirt like James Dean, it didn’t mean you went and assumed she was male. Some of my education seemed to have worn off over the summer.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked.
I turned my cheek to the grass in an effort to mute the stereophonic whine of cicadas and grasshoppers. I was lying in somebody’s backyard. Gray fencing teetered overhead, but the only shade on me fell from the massive, hairy leaves of some kind of vine I was curled beside. “What is this plant?” I said.
“Um, pumpkin,” the girl said. “Look, are you okay? What happened to you?” she said.
“I had sex with somebody,” I said. The uprush of memory, and the shock that I’d spoken it aloud, made me retch a little. I rolled over and sat up in the grass.
“You had sex with somebody,” she echoed. “On purpose?”