Fiction Review by Chris Fox

Sarah Henstra, The Red Word (Toronto: ECW, 2018).  Paperbound, 400 pp., $19.95.

The Red WordThe Red Word is an inventive and courageous fictional exploration of one of the oldest, and most destructive, patriarchal institutions, rape. Sarah Henstra, a professor of English at Toronto’s Ryerson University, sets this very timely fiction, her first adult novel, among 1990s American Ivy League college students—a natural graduation from her first, a young-adult novel, Mad Miss Mimic.

Congruent with the historical and destructive significance of rape, and taking advantage of the ready-made narrative strategies they offer, Henstra structures her fiction using Greek mythology. Each section takes its title from elements of Greek epic, which are kindly translated for readers. The college Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities become the field on which she re-enacts a contemporary, radical politics Trojan War, with an unwitting Helen (Karen, the narrator), and a live Trojan horse (Charla, in my own interpretation).

Naming seems important to Henstra, who also brings her expertise in myth, folklore, and secret societies into play in The Red Word. The women’s communal house Karen joins, responding to their call for a vegan, feminist, and queer-friendly housemate, is named Raghurst (think “being on the rag,” the rags of poverty, the ragtag pack), while the other “secret society” house is frat house Gamma Beta Chi, renamed Gang Bang Central (GBC). Raghurst’s leader, Dyann, evokes Rome’s Diana the Huntress (based on Grecian Artemis) and inspires her followers to embrace both radical rage and the enemy’s tools to infiltrate and expose the rape culture at gbc.

Appropriately, then, Henstra has the women of Raghurst taking a Women and Myth course from a charismatic and strongly feminist classics professor: “Dr. Esterhazy! Our Thetis, our Athene, our Regina Coeli, our Britomartis.” Although her politics seem sometimes “hazy” to Dyann, Dr. Esterhazy is, nevertheless, a useful vehicle for explicating The Red Word as it unfolds. For instance, she alerts readers that “The plot always resolves the same way in Greek epic…. And like everything else, the plot resolution is sharply gendered.” In one go, Henstra explains and foreshadows; I will not reveal further, but observe only how self-reflective this makes the text. The Red Word draws not only from Classical Greece, but also from literary postmodernity.

Similarly, The Red Word is not only about the war between Raghurst and GBC. It is also about Karen, the working-class Canadian, caught between the houses, and set apart by her nationality, class, and sexuality. Like all good writers (and Henstra is a very professional writer who also teaches creative writing), Henstra’s own life experience lends verisimilitude to her characters. For instance, like Karen, Henstra worked many jobs to get through school, including tree planting and waitressing, both of which help ground the narrative in contemporary reality.

Karen’s heterosexuality distinguishes her from her housemates, most of whom are varying degrees of queer, and her initial relationship with one of the (more decent) frat brothers, Mike, gives her entry to GBC. However, she is more strongly attracted to another brother, Bruce Comfort, whose name is, again, telling, as he seems to offer the kind of comfort desired by the narrator. He’s a good looking, “goldbright boy,” that Karen “fashions out of the depths of her longing.”

This variation in the denizens of both houses and the varying levels of rape that occur (along with a range of sexual activity) ensure that The Red Word is not simplistic. All male characters are not bad, nor all females good. This makes it a relatively useful starting place for discussion. However, as someone with a radical lesbian feminist background myself, I must note that some of the actions taken by Dyann’s group seemed unlikely, regardless of their narrative usefulness.

Some of my favourite passages are instances where Henstra styles her writing directly after Greek epic poetry, for instance in the invocatio, CALLING ON THE MUSE:

Sing, O Goddess, of the fury of Dyann Brooks-Morris, teller of unbearable truths. O sing of the rage that kindled one young woman’s heart and the next until it drove us together from our homes, battlethirsty, into the secret places of the enemy.

The epic tone contributes to a timelessness that is furthered by a somewhat hazy temporality. Although nominally set in the 1990s, many aspects resonate strongly with the seventies, eighties, and even the current century. The enumeratio (EPIC CATALOGUE) amused me to no end:

The women gathered at Raghurst…. The women bore with them their great gifts of feasting. From cardboard boxes padded with dish towels they unpacked their Corningwares of broccoli-tofu… . And all the breads soups salads casseroles desserts everywhere…were one hundred percent gluten-free and dairy-free and nut-free and shellfish-free as agreed upon beforehand so that all, fearless, might partake.

Fast forward fifteen years to the counter narrative in which Karen has become an interiors photographer with a separate artistic interest in (and surely this is significant) rot. Now Toronto-based, she attends a conference in the U. S., where she re-encounters Dyann and readers learn more about the long-term effects of the war between the houses and the tragedies that followed from the rapes and the questionable methods Raghurst used to fight GBC rape culture. We also see a complicated hope unfolding in both their lives.

The Red Word is a careful entry into the discussion of rape culture, which pervades our entire culture, not just the fraternities. It is well worth the read.


—Chris Fox

As in The Malahat Review, 204, Autumn 2018