The Red Word by Sarah Henstra


“Sing, O Goddess, of the fury of Dyann Brooks-Morriss, teller of unbearable truths. O sing of the rage that kindled one young woman’s heart and the next until it drove us together from our homes, battlethristy, into the secret places of the enemy. “


Set in the world of college fraternities in the 90s amid the third wave of feminism. Our narrator, Karen, has her feet in two worlds: her housemates, queer and feminist to the extreme, and her boyfriend who is a Gang Bang Central pledge. The reader follows as Karen attempts to navigate these two warring worlds: the women raging against the misogyny and sexual harassment prominent in campus life and the men of GBC , their harassers and all around general sexist pigs. But to Karen, is it all as black and white as they seem to think it is?


From the beginning I was drawn in by the references to Homer and the Greeks. It doesn't matter how much society changes or progresses, our basic human nature does not. The same stories and roles are still being played out thousands of years later and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so until the end of time (as close as that may be, thanks to climate change). What sets The Red Word apart for me was the use of the overblown speech hearkening back to Homer. It was overindulgent and dramatic in the best way, highlighting the self-indulgence of youth. What it is to be young and beautiful and the centre of the universe. How we complicate our own lives, strong in the belief that our dramas are of the utmost importance, that the fate of the world is in our hands and we can change it for the better. Life is lived with intensity and with no compromise in a way that you will never experience again.


“We all thought we were different but we weren’t. We all thought we were resisting something but we weren’t. We all thought that life would be like this forever but it wouldn’t. We were going to spend the rest of our lives trying and failing to re-create this feeling of urgency, of specialness, of being smack at the epicentre of everything important and real happening in the world. For the rest of our lives we would yearn for this feeling of exigency and belonging and fullness and passion. From here on in, it would be nostalgia.”


The character of Bruce Comfort was an intriguing and important one. Henstra really captures that complicated relationship many women find themselves in when it comes to beautiful men and I'm glad it was a focus of the novel. Bruce embodies the qualities associated with Achilles in a modern setting to perfection—a golden haired hero. Beauty equates to goodness and thus all questionable behaviour is explained away. We want to believe that Bruce is essentially good beneath the facade of your typical lad. The way Karen feels about Bruce really highlights the ability we have to selectively dismiss bad behaviour in those who we want to believe are intrinsically good. I loved that Henstra left the resolution and Bruce’s character ambiguous in the end, mimicking the uncertainty of the real world and how difficult it is to truly understand a person’s motivations.


Ultimately all the characters in this one are shades of grey, complex and layered, all implicated, all flawed and all very much mistaken in the arrogance of youth. Dyann, the angry feminist, Mike, the "nice" guy and Charla, almost undefinable. I find myself still thinking about these characters, pulling them apart, trying to comprehend all that Henstra gave me to think about. I found this an incredibly intelligent and thought-provoking read and would love to see more people join me in raving about it. There is just so much to pull from these pages and from Karen's experience. How very dare we try to have it all, did you really think you could have the best of conflicting worlds?




The Red Word

By Sarah Henstra

352 pages. 2018.


Buy it here - US, UK, AUS.