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5.0 out of 5 starsFive young university women's struggles with relationships, ideologies, ethics, and lust
Reviewed in Canada on January 29, 2019
This compelling and nuanced account of a year in the life of five female university students is not, as stated in the simplistic view of some reviewers, about "rape culture." The five young women housemates have different views and approaches to campus life and to relations between women and men. The charismatic, anti-male lesbian radical feminist does not speak for all of her roommates, some of whom disagree with her extreme views and schemes. This book is not a feminist propaganda tract, however much some readers wish to celebrate it as such. The young women portrayed struggle with relationships, ideologies, ethics, and lust, and the intensity of this struggle has lasting consequences for them.
The Red Word is labeled as a campus novel, it covers many important topics and issues campuses face such as rape, feminism, wealth, hate, politics, friendship, relationships and I think it's an extraordinary book. One of the things I love about Karen as a character is that she has the insider and outsider perspective of being in the frat house, because of her boyfriend, and being inside Raghurst, because that's where she lives. We get to see inside both worlds through Karen's perspective and I think it's important to see both to understand and sympathize with the characters and the story.
I love this book so much. It's complicated, it's important and well-written. I couldn't wait to finish the book because I wanted to know how it ended but I didn't want to story to end.
5.0 out of 5 starsA beautifully written and very current novel
Reviewed in Canada on November 6, 2018
In her searing novel about rape culture and polarized university campuses, Sarah Henstra introduces us to a cast of characters who, as well-educated and privileged young adults, so steadfastly believe in their ideologies they are willing to risk everything to act on them.
Set at an unnamed Ivy League university in the 1990s, The Red Word follows sophomore student Karen Huls who, in a desperate search for a place to live, moves in to a house of radical feminists. Karen, a free-spirited tree planter, hasn’t spent much time thinking about feminism or gender relations and despite the influence of her new roommates continues a relationship with a member of a fraternity notorious for its mistreatment of women. As the year progresses, her eyes are opened not only to the actions of the fraternity members, but to the single-minded determination of her housemates to bring down the campus Greek system.
As the battle between the two sides intensifies, Karen is torn between her boyfriend, as well as one of his frat brothers with whom she is in love, and her newfound understanding of what it means to be a woman on a university campus. She watches with a confusing combination of horror and apathy as collateral damages accumulate in the all-out war.
Central to The Red Word is the idea that the personal is political, a lens through which Karen’s roommates scrutinize each of her choices. By dating a member of an organization that revels in the mistreatment of women, has Karen made herself complicit in campus rape culture? By moving in to a house of radical feminists has she become inherently anti-man? Has apathy become the same as taking a stance, and is it worse to be apathetic than it is to be involved?
As the battle between fraternity and feminism rages on, Karen’s persona – that of a relaxed, laid back “cool girl” – starts to slip. Boys she considered friends turn on her, both because of her own actions and affiliations and simply by virtue of being a girl in an argument that has been simplistically categorized as man vs. woman.
Henstra masterfully depicts the fierce binarism of campus politics. Her characters, while flawed and misled on many occasions, are undeniably intelligent and motivated, and so deeply convinced of their own correctness – in the way that only young, educated, privileged people can be - that they overlook the new problems they’ve created by trying to prove their point. They speak to one another in phrases repeated verbatim from women’s studies and Greek mythology lectures, leaving the reader certain of their conviction, but unclear on whether or not they understand what they’re really saying.
Though set almost three decades ago, The Red Word is timely. It depicts college campuses at their best and worst, as places of higher learning and open intellectual horizons, but also as cesspools of radical and dangerous thought, institutions that protect and foster the most corrosive and frightening elements of masculinity, and that force young women to take their safety into their own hands, sometimes at a terrible cost.
The Red Word is hard to read at times, depicting graphic and upsetting interactions between characters and detailing the harrowing experiences of women on campus. But Henstra pierces through the dark tones of the novel with beautiful writing and perfectly created atmosphere. This book is a must-read.
This is a terrific novel --very alive, fully imagined, engrossing, well plotted, original, well written, sharply drawn characters. It's much more than just a timely, me-too knd of novel. The author knows the ways of the world and possesses a lot of quiet wisdom. Realistic, not ideological. It and The Mars Room are the two best new novels I came across last year. Looking forward to whatever Ms Henstra publishes next. Evidently she's an English prof, and she obviously knows campus life well (the novel is mostly set on campus a dozen or so years ago) but there is not a hint of English dept jargon in her prose.
She treats a complex subject with delicacy. They story could easily get out of hand with it's complicated themes interwoven around mysogeny, feminism, justice, youth, sexuality and exploration but she holds it together. The story is never preachy but it easily could have been.
It could be an eye opener for many men and women to see opinions that may often be surpessed voiced for all to see. She cleverly uses socratic debate as a foil to discuss these topics while never boring. I never left the story but at times had to put the book down for a day as it effected me so much. I carried the characters with me to work and at home.
I wouldn't call it an easy read - it's not. There are portions that are very challenging emotionally. Despite that it should be mandatory reading for anyone of at at least nearly college age.