Early on in Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, protagonist Karen wakes up in ‘someone’s backyard’, wearing ‘boxer shorts, one turquoise jelly sandal’ and ‘no bra’. She tells Steph, the woman who finds her, that she’s had sex. ‘On purpose?’ Steph asks. ‘There was a frat party,’ she responds. The party was at GBC (Gamma Beta Chi), also known as ‘Gang Bang Central’; the backyard belongs to ‘Raghurst’, where a group of radical young feminists live. When Karen’s invited inside, the women immediately ask her if she’s been raped. No, she replies, observing, ‘Rape’ is ‘a sharp word, a greedy word’, ‘a double-sided axe brandished in a circle over the head. It drew all kinds of attention to itself.’

Henstra’s novel, set on a US campus in the 1990s, explores rape culture through the antagonistic relationship between the Raghurst circle and GBC, the fraternity whose members feature predominantly on a date rapist list circulating among female students. Invited to move into Raghurst, Karen is the link between the factions, attracted by the intellectual debate, feminism and sisterhood of peers Dyann, Steph and Charla, and drawn into GBC life via frat boyfriend Mike and young ‘Adonis’ Bruce, to whom she’s attracted.

Throughout the novel, we are reminded that rape and sexual misconduct are as old as time, Henstra drawing parallels between the events of the ‘now’ and the actions and deeds of the epic heroes and protagonists of classic mythology. The Raghursts are fascinated by Sylvia Esterhazy, who teaches a course on ‘Women and Myth’ and leads them to question where the accepted constructs of masculinity and femininity come from. ‘Sylvia takes us right back to the Greek epic for answers,’ Steph comments. ‘Heroism. Victimhood. Sacrifice.’ And it’s these themes that seemingly inform the Raghursts’ actions in trying to bring the subject of sexual violence to the fore.

Without a doubt, a book shining a spotlight on rape culture is timely, if not overdue in the context of #metoo and documentaries like The Hunting Ground (2015). Among its many strengths, The Red Word is far from a comfortable read; it’s not romanticised in any way and no character is particularly likeable or heroic, whichever side he or she may sit on. In that, its authenticity is admirable, the people flawed, often blinded by youth, a sense of privilege or sheer dogmatism, and driven by the belief that what they are doing or how they are behaving is their right. And perhaps this is the most interesting element of the novel, that it leads the reader to assess the world in which they (and we) live and ask if the end ever does justify the means and if the right people are being held accountable. In this social media age, where people are quickly vilified, tried and convicted, survivor and perpetrator alike, these are extremely important questions.

The Red Word is a tightly crafted book, well-written, intelligent and unsettling, yes – and my god, is it one worth reading.





The Red Word | Sarah Henstra | Tramp Press | March 2019 | paperback | £12.99

Please support independent bookshops and libraries


Acknowledgements: Book text quotes © Sarah Henstra 2018. This review is published as part of the publisher virtual book tour. Many thanks to Anne Cater and to the publisher for sending a book proof. Please check out the other participants on the tour. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.



Also of interest:By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Permission by Saskia Vogel‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘Helga Flatland’s study of A Modern Family’;  ‘The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’; ‘Call Me Star Girl’; ‘Blood Orange’; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;RW Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

Select Q&As/interviews: ‘Charlie Laidlaw’; ‘Lilja Sigurðardóttir’; ’Tom Cox’; ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Gunnar Staalesen’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; Gina Kirkham;John Fairfax’; ‘Ian Ridley’; ‘David Stuart Davies’.

Film: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – a Billy Wilder classic?; Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).


This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.