The Red Word, by Sarah Henstra, Tramp Press, 325 pp, €15/€12, ISBN: 978-1999700874
In an interview about The Red Word, her provocative debut novel set in a nameless nineties Ivy League School, Sarah Henstra talks about rape “as a word that cuts in both directions, in that it can cause harm to the accused but also ‑ in a culture that often defaults to victim blaming, slut shaming, and other misogynistic attitudes ‑ to the accuser, too. As these attitudes change, hopefully the disclosure and reporting of abuse will become less fraught.”
Twenty years ago discussions about sexual violence, consent, power in relationships were limited. It could be argued that only in recent years are we beginning to find the language to respond to these issues meaningfully. In the wake of #MeToo, The Red Word is a timely novel, which goes a long way towards furthering these vital conversations. Since its publication in Canada (Grove Atlantic 2018) and its recent publication with Tramp Press in Ireland this year, critical interest in Henstra’s book has been intense, the novel notching up high praise, including being awarded the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada. It’s an interest fuelled not just by the impressive power of Henstra’s writing but by The Red Word’s provocative subject matter of rape culture within a fictional fraternity called Gama Beta Chi, or “Gang Bang Central”, notorious for several of its “brothers’” names being featured on a list of date rapists compiled by the university’s female students.
The novel begins in 2010. Karen Huls is a Toronto lifestyle photographer who hears of the sudden death of a friend she had known in college. This news sends her speedily back in time to the mid-nineties and to her party-going, drug-filled university days. What follows is a gripping narrative revealing the horrors of rape within this campus culture and also the anti-frat activism generated by Karen’s housemates at the time – four radical feminists seeking to uncover and bring down the male residents of GBC.
When we first meet Karen, she is lying in a hungover, dishevelled, post-party heap on the lawn of “Raghurst”, a house which she knows has been advertising for a roommate.
My hair … was dew-frizzed and studded with bits of dead grass … I stank of booze and, probably, sex.
Despite the desperate state she is in and despite the fact that she has just had sex with a frat brother – something her future housemates do not approve of – Karen, after an unconventional interview, passes the test and is given a place in the house. Pretty soon, she moves in and becomes a Raghurst woman, awed at first by the indomitable spirit and radical feminism of the house’s occupants, led by the powerful Dyann Brooks Morris.
The women of the house also arrange for her to be included on the college course “Women and Myth” run by Dr Esterhazy, a teacher who inspires her students to employ myth – particularly that of Helen of Troy – as an incisive tool to understand gender, sex and politics. Dyann puts it succinctly to her new housemate. ‘‘Women are our own worst enemies, Karen. If you learn anything at all from Dr Esterhazy, you’ll learn that. We play nice, we play along, and so men go ahead and write us into their fantasies exactly as they see fit.’’
In Karen, Sarah Henstra has created an intriguing narrator, one attracted to the caustic hawk-eyed Dyann and her loyal followers but one brazen enough to hold her own among them. She is smart, funny but also morally suspect. Despite hearing the rumours of a “torture chamber” called the Black Bag in the basement of the GBC where frat boys enjoy “pulling train” with girls, Karen continues to party with the “lawless boys”. She even dates Mike Morton, one of the pack, while also secretly falling in love with Bruce Comfort, the “golden idol” and leader of the house.
Caught between the politics and sexual activities of both opposing houses, Karen becomes “a sort of double agent” who she knows will “fit in, not be singled out”. In so doing, she becomes witness not only to the horrific rape culture of the fraternity (“If I get drunk I become rapeable. If I take off my clothes I become rapeable. If I leave your room at night when you’re passed out I become rapeable,” Karen tells her boyfriend.) but also to the disturbing and violent plan that Dyann “the battlefast general” and the Raghurst women enact in order to expose the GBC.
Sarah Henstra is a sophisticated writer, skilled in her depiction of her morally vacillating narrator, the dilemmas she faces and the personal price she ultimately pays – so that the irony of her next door neighbour’s comment is far from lost on us. “Imagine a place where taking drugs and passing out means you’ll get gang-banged. That place shouldn’t even exist.”
In her novel Sarah Henstra has created a place where rape, “a ravenous word”, truly does exist within the notorious fraternity house Gamma Beta Chi. In so doing, she has proven herself to be a brave and honest writer, unflinching in her exposition of the sexual violence of campus culture. While Henstra’s novel can at times be a messy, difficult and violent read, ultimately The Red Word is an important book, one that demands to be read and not easily forgotten.
Sheri Asselin, herself a victim of GBC and the date rape drug Rohypnol, perhaps best sums up one of the central messages of this striking book, when she wisely advises Karen, “I know Chet’s your boyfriend and everything, but you shouldn’t protect those guys. The silence is part of the problem.”
Enda Wyley is a poet. She has published five collections of poetry, most recently Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems, Dedalus press. She is a member of Aosdána.