The Red Word: A Novel

The Red Word: A Novel

Henstra, Sarah

  • Winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award

    The battle of the sexes goes to college in this nervy debut adult novel by a powerful new voice

    A smart, dark, and take-no-prisoners look at rape culture and the extremes to which ideology can go The Red Word is a campus novel like no other. As her sophomore year begins, Karen enters into the back-to-school revelry — particularly at Gamma Beta Chi. When she wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the state of feminist activism on campus. The frat known as GBC is notorious, she learns, nicknamed “Gang Bang Central” and a prominent contributor to a list of rapists compiled by female students. Despite continuing to party there and dating one of the brothers, Karen is equally seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology scholar they all adore. As Karen finds herself caught between two increasingly polarized camps, ringleader housemate Dyann believes she has hit on the perfect way to expose and bring down the fraternity as a symbol of rape culture — but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.

    The Red Word captures beautifully the feverish binarism of campus politics and the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers, and life-altering ideas. With strains of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, Alison Lurie’s Truth and Consequences, and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Sarah Henstra’s debut adult novel arrives on the wings of furies.


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  • Sarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University. She is the author of the young adult novel Mad Miss Mimic. This is her first work of adult fiction. She lives in Toronto.

  • Published: March 2018

    ISBN: 9781770414242

    Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.25 in.

    Pages: 400


“Henstra draws on Greek mythology to comment on contemporary issues — how assault can take on ambiguity and how the internalization of rape culture convolutes gender politics, to the point where constructive conversation is nearly impossible.”  — The New Yorker

“A timely and nuanced dissection of rape culture.” — Booklist

“Groundbreaking and provocative, this is an astonishing evisceration of the clichés of sexual politics as they exist not only on our college campuses, but also within broader present-day society. Alternately heartbreaking, funny, and critical, no one gets off easily. The Red Word plumbs the depths of literature, mythology, history, philosophy, and a host of contemporary issues — an utterly effing good read.” — Governor General’s Literary Awards Jury

“Henstra cleverly navigates thorny issues like sexual assault, militant ideology, and the polarization between belligerent college kids and ultra-progressive campus activists.” — Toronto Life

“Stylistically innovative . . . Henstra fondly recreates the on-campus feminism of a particular time and place, employing a style imitating Homer . . . to elevate the world of campus politics to the mythic. . . .  All this exalting language perfectly captures the self-importance of youth and, simultaneously, nostalgia for the age when everything could mean so much.” — The Globe and Mail

The Red Word is set in the 1990s but speaks directly to the present feminist moment. Sarah Henstra takes us into two worlds: that of Women’s Studies classes and lesbian pagan rituals, and of frat boys and S&M theme parties. As I watched Karen struggle with politics, power, and her own culpability in the fallout of it all, I could not put this book down.” — Darcey Steinke, author of Suicide Blonde and Sister Golden Hair

The Red Word is a profoundly contemporary take on one of our oldest and most corrosive stories. In note-perfect prose, Sarah Henstra sings of war at its most personal, the myth of conquest brought home to bleed on the hearth. A fierce and devastatingly timely debut.” — Alissa York, author of The Naturalist

“Henstra’s uncomfortable, provocative book doesn’t shirk anything; nothing is completely clear-cut or binary, and not only the ‘right people’ suffer.” — Brit + Co

“The true strength of the novel is its ethical and moral complexity . . . The Red Word is raw in its unflinching depiction of college rape culture, the endless labeling and grading of women based on sexual value, the inherent codification of brotherhood and its reinforcement through social class.” – Chris Via Book Review

“Henstra masterfully depicts the fierce binarism of campus politics . . . Henstra pierces through the dark tones of the novel with beautiful writing and perfectly created atmosphere. This book is a must-read.” — Olivia Lavery blog

The Red Word is an inventive and courageous fictional exploration of one of the oldest, and most destructive, patriarchal institutions, rape. . . . It is well worth the read.” — The Malahat Review

“This is a novel about modern gender politics, but it steers clear of oversimplifying the characters and situations. Within the first few pages, it's easy to see why this gripping, challenging story earned the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.” — StarPhoenix

“Intense and gripping . . . A dark, powerful and addictive meditation on the exploitation of the female body in the confines of the student environment.” — Vanity Fair London

“An aesthetically arresting interrogation of rape culture on campus … Timely and brilliant.” — Kirkus Reviews

“[A]n incisive campus novel … Henstra portrays Greek life in a harsh light and doesn’t hold back when describing the excessive drunkenness, debauchery, and deplorable misogynistic attitudes at Gamma Beta Chi … the novel raises essential questions surrounding class privilege, rape, and gendered power dynamics on campus.” — Publishers Weekly

“A timely, telling look at rape culture on campus, Sarah Henstra’s “The Red Word” boldly goes to the places where memoir can't but fiction can — and gives way to one hell of a realistic narrative.” — Popsugar

“The writing in The Red Word is undeniably gripping and at times beautiful . . . The timely, relevant topic of campus rape culture is addressed bravely; there aren’t enough works of fiction that tackle the material so honestly and prudently.” — Quill & Quire

“A hilarious and intellectual book of literature . . . Henstra offers critical insight into rape culture, gender power dynamics, the fluidity of identity, and the experience of living as a woman today.” — CBC Books

The Red Word is the smartest, most provocative novel I’ve read in a long time. Sarah Henstra dives headlong into some murky, turbulent waters — gender politics, campus sexual assault, complicity, moral responsibility — and emerges with a book that’s as shocking as it is essential.” — Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and Nine Inches

“In the most timely of novels — and an instance of art imitating life imitating art — Sarah Henstra’s novel The Red Word deals with the issue of campus rape in an almost Shakespearean way.” — Read it Forward

The Red Word explores the ways in which consent is not completely black and white and how fighting against the system is both complicated and slippery.” — Hedgehog Book Reviews

The Red Word is a timely and arresting account of the poison that fraternities inject into college campuses . . . While The Red Word is set almost 30 years in the past, it’s surprisingly resonant.” — Bitch Media

“An engrossing and necessary [read] that has proven timely.” — Chatelaine Books of the Year

“Beyond the inherent literary goods of the book, that a campus novel won a top literary prize in the country last year can't help but be taken as an indicator of the reading public's interest in what goes on in Canadian universities, and of the literary novel's singular ability to convey as much in ways both artful and instructive.” — University Affairs

“This fierce and gripping novel digs into character, moral quandaries, Greek mythology, feminist thought, and in the author's own words, ‘the clash between ideas and real life that can happen to university students.’” — All Lit Up