The Red Word: Smart campus novel explores gender politics and rape culture

Surely we can all agree that the problems of America are not necessarily the problems of the world. It can be difficult to remember this when it sometimes feels like social-media hashtag culture is being thumbed by a prickly and right-on demographic in the States before being hopped on slightly disingenuously by the rest of the world.

Take the issue of frat houses and sororities on US campuses, and the webs of privilege, discrimination (both on racial or lineage grounds) and abuse occasionally levelled at them. It is a phenomenon we are blissfully free of in European third-level education, our knowledge of them mostly drawn from Hollywood comedies where jocks crush empty beer cans on their temples and snooty princesses plot to destroy one another. All very odd when viewed from these shores.

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Having done a post-doctoral fellowship in University of California back in the day, Toronto author Sarah Henstra would have seen this bizarre Americanism in action at ground level and from an outsider’s perspective. In this novel, she uses a similar protagonist from north of the border to perform the role of “weirded-out foreigner”, trying to get to grips with the heated gender wars she finds raging on a US college campus.

Karen answers an ad to join Raghurst, a sorority of radical feminists and lesbians. Led by the hard-line Dyann, all are in thrall to Dr Esterhazy, the university’s women’s studies professor and lecturer in this semester’s Women and Myth module. This is all a bit new to Karen, but she does find the intellectualism and zeal of the Raghurst crew stimulating and challenging.

On the other hand, she is making things very difficult for herself by literally sleeping with the enemy. After a fumbling sexual encounter, she is now dating Mike, a member of a notorious frat house called Gamma Beta Chi (GBC) – or Gang Bang Central, as their campus nickname goes. Renowned as a constant rollover party house where girls are treated like playthings, not all willingly, and even raped (the “red word” of the title given its loaded interpretations), GBC is in the crosshairs of Raghurst. A plot is afoot to take down the house and expose the wretched misogynistic culture that is perpetrated on visiting girls by the brotherhood.

Because she is a girlfriend, Karen is off bounds from any advances and a regular at the house, even if some residents are suspicious that she just might be infiltrating on behalf of Raghurst. At the same time, Dyann and co have their noses out of joint that Karen is having heterosexual relations with one of their number.

These tensions and Karen’s feeling of being stuck between two diametrically opposed worlds reaches a nadir when she witnesses something terrible take place in a particularly sordid corner of GBC during one of their lurid nocturnal shindigs.

The conflict within Karen is very much the driving force of this effortlessly edible award-winner that Tramp Press have happened upon. Henstra is thorough but entertaining in the way she engages with the labyrinthine politics that are being waged and the fervour that comes when such issues are wrung through young minds that are “giddy and hyperventilating in the superoxygenated atmosphere of attention and information and privilege and power”.

There is so much ethical thorniness that Karen struggles to unknot. There is that of the world of academic feminism, the disparate strands and differing levels of extremism that cause discord between Karen and the other girls of Raghurst.

On the other side of the wall, she observes the abusive, Neanderthal behaviour of some members of GBC for what it is and yet relishes both the sexual heat the red-blooded men bring her loins as well as the more relaxed jocularity their domain offers.

Between this, Karen’s coming-of-age arc, and the constant conversation Henstra is having with Greek mythology and its treatment of female characters (as ciphered through course materials), The Red Word has a host of fascinating moving parts, all swaying in harmony with one another.

It helps that Henstra is a writer of real athleticism and silk, able to nail the smallest of her narrator’s inclinations with a smartly composed sequence of words, or else drum-up chiming neologisms (“swollengold”, “lustcrisp”, “limbstruggle”) to bend to her purpose.

And that purpose in itself feels like something of a victory. The Red Word is an examination of a very serious topic and the messiness that swirls around it in the clothing of a fiercely smart, independently minded page-turner that stays light to the touch and full of youthful candour. There aren’t any sermonising finger-wags here because there doesn’t need to be. Like the mythologies of the ages, it is through fables and masterful yarn-spinning that the most complex moral kernels reach us.

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