The Red Word by Sarah Henstra
10th Apr 2019
In The Red Word, Karen Huls is a sophomore at a small liberal arts university who finds herself drawn to two polarizing groups within the insular campus world.
The first, a flatshare comprised of radical feminists, led by the fiercely political Dyann and earning the nickname Raghurst. The second, notorious frat house Gamma Beta Chi, nicknamed Gang Bang Central, home to debauched parties, degrading hazing rituals and a number of date rape and assault accusations.
Unwilling to give up either the hedonistic lifestyle of the frat house or the activist cachet she acquires by her association with Raghurst, Karen finds herself increasingly caught in the middle of a battle in which the ends begin to outweigh the means.
What follows is a woozy, dark exploration of the perils of black-and-white thinking, of mob rule and of allowing dogma to overrule common sense. In The Red Word, Sarah Henstra’s writing is bold and uncompromising, and nobody escapes her judgement.
There are few truly likeable characters in The Red Word. Nearly all of them inhabit a strange moral hinterland, allowing them to justify their increasingly reprehensible actions to themselves and others.
Whether it’s the beautiful, self-destructive Charla and her quest to find the limits of what she can tolerate, or Karen’s genuinely creepy ‘nice guy’ boyfriend Mike, there is a sense that every character in The Red Word is hiding, afraid to face fundamental truths about themselves.
Karen herself is not spared from Henstra’s assessment. As the bridge between two polarized worlds on campus, she repeatedly proclaims herself neutral, even referring to herself as Switzerland (in itself a loaded phrase) – but this forced neutrality becomes a political act, too.
By attempting to sit on the fence and turning a blind eye to the actions of the people she wants to impress, Karen implicates herself in the violence that begins to spread across the campus like a cancer.
The Red Word is full of allusions to Greek myth, appropriate for its setting of fraternities and sororities and its themes of women as property, of violence and revenge. I particularly enjoyed the naming of each chapter with an apt Greek word or phrase and its translation; more than once, the word would give a hint at the content of the next chapter and have me steeling myself before I flipped the page.
The obsession with Greek mythology, the campus setting, and the ambivalent narrator drawn in by a group of charismatic outcasts will perhaps inevitably draw comparisons with Donna Tartt’s cult classic, The Secret History. The parallels are in places so extreme as to feel deliberate (there’s even a bacchanalia, here transposed into an appropriately feminist Wiccan sabbat) and The Red Word functions as an interesting companion piece or 21st-century update to Tartt’s novel.
Not everything about the book is perfect: the wide cast of characters means that some of them feel slightly underdeveloped (though, without spoilers, this is sometimes a deliberate tactic on behalf of the author) and I felt that the present-day sections, though serving an important narrative purpose, were not so vividly rendered as the campus flashbacks.
Uneasy and ambiguous in its morals, The Red Word is often difficult to read. In places it is brutally violent, with graphic descriptions of sexual assault. With its first-person narrative, we are asked to root for first one viewpoint and then another, Henstra adept at toying with our loyalties. The frequent allusions to Greek mythology and the interweaving of witchcraft contribute further to the atmosphere of dread.
Sarah Henstra’s debut adult novel is one that asks questions to which there are no easy answers, and reminds us that placing an ideology above simple humanity, no matter how noble the intentions, allows us to make monsters of ourselves.
The Red Word is out now from Tramp Press