The Red Word

(American edition)


On a college campus in the mid-90s, two houses—a popular fraternity and a group of ardent young feminists—go to war.

Consent. Rape culture. The male gaze. Sex-positivity. The Red Word asks a bold question: what if women weren’t content to wait for the next assault to take action? What if they got tired of the his-word-against-hers stalemates? Set against the sex wars of the 1990s and the birth of third-wave feminism, the result is a smart, dark, take-no-prisoners look at the extremes to which ideology can go.

Canadian Edition

As college begins again, sophomore Karen Huls dives into the back-to-school revelry — particularly at Gamma Beta Chi, a favored fraternity. But when Karen wakes up one morning on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in the notoriety of GBC — a.k.a. “Gang Bang Central” — and the state of feminist activism on campus.

Despite continuing to party at GBC, Karen is seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the women at Raghurst, who surprise her by wanting her as a housemate and recruiting her into the upper-level class of a charismatic feminist mythology professor 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. In the headlong rush of youth toward new friends, lovers, and life-altering ideas, the ensuing war between houses will exact a terrible price.

Praise for The Red Word:

Winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction (Canada)

Bitch‘s 25 Books You Must Read in 2018

The Daily Edge‘s 17 Upcoming Books by Women to Read in 2018

Chatelaine Magazine’s Top 18 Books of 2018

The Globe & Mail 100 Best Books of 2018

LoanStars’ Top 10 Picks for March 2018 (as voted by Canadian library staff)

“Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word will get you fuming, laughing, cheering, and most of all, thinking.”—Cosmopolitan

“Timely and incisive, young adult author Sarah Henstra makes her adult fiction debut with this tale of collegiate politics and campus rape. Infused with Homerian weight, the novel is appropriately Greek-focused, centering on a controversy between bad boy fraternity house Gamma Beta Chi, the radical feminists of Raghurst, and a young woman caught between the two when a set-up to call out the fraternity’s rape culture leads to unintended tragedy.” –Harper’s Bazaar

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

“The writing in The Red Word is undeniably gripping and at times beautiful, seamlessly weaving the Greek mythology Karen is studying in class into her own personal story and creating realistic, complex characters the reader wants to root for despite their flaws.” Quill & Quire (starred review)

“Set in the 1990s, The Red Word interrogates the prevailing political preoccupations of that time: gender politics, third-wave feminism, and consent…A timely and nuanced dissection of rape culture ensues.”- Booklist

“Few authors are more qualified to write about university life than Sarah Henstra, a Ryerson English prof by day and novelist by night. In The Red Word. . . Henstra cleverly navigates thorny issues like sexual assault, militant ideology, and the polarization between belligerent college kids and ultra-progressive campus activists.” Toronto Life

“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.” –Pop Sugar

The Red Word examines rape culture on college campuses with a precision and gentleness that few novels have achieved. . . While The Red Word is entertaining, it’s also a sobering reminder of the horrors inflicted on women, trans, and nonbinary people on college campuses.” —Bitch

“Provocative . . . [The Red Word] doesn’t shirk anything; nothing is completely clear-cut or binary.” —Brit+Co

“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.” —GG Award Jury Citation

“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

“Witty and original . . . a bold new voice in Canadian fiction.” – Helen Humphreys, author of The Evening Chorus

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 Effigy and The Naturalist

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 I could not put this book down.” — Darcey Steinke, author of Suicide Blonde and Sister Golden Hair