The Red Word – Sarah Henstra

I’m going to start out with how much I loved this one. The Red Word is set in the world of college fraternities in the 90’s amid the third wave of feminism. Our narrator, Karen, has her foot in two worlds: her housemates, queer and feminist to the extreme and her boyfriend who is a GBC pledge. From the beginning I was a sucker for the references to Homer and the Greeks. It doesn’t matter how much society changes or progresses our basic human nature does not and the same stories and roles are still being played out thousands of years later and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so well into the future.


What also worked for me was the use of the overblown speech hearkening back to Homer. It was overindulgent and dramatic in the best way and I thought it really highlighted the self-indulgence of youth: how we complicate our own lives, strong in the belief that our dramas are of the utmost importance. We are young and beautiful and the centre of the universe. Life is lived with intensity and is life and death with no compromise in between.


I thought the character of Bruce Comfort was an important one. Henstra really captures that complicated relationship many women find themselves in and I’m glad it was a focus of the novel. I also loved that she left the resolution and character ambiguous in the end as it mimics the uncertainty of the real world. Bruce plays the role of Achilles perfectly. Beauty equates to goodness and thus all questionable behaviour is explained away. We want to believe him to be good beneath that facade of your typical lad. It really highlights the ability we have to selectively dismiss bad behavior in those who we want to believe are good.


Ultimately all the characters in this one are shades of grey, complex and layered, all implicated, all flawed and all very much mistaken in the arrogance of youth. Dyann, the angry feminist, Mike, the “nice” guy and Charla, almost undefinable. I find myself still thinking about these characters, pulling them apart, trying to comprehend all that Henstra gave me to think about. I found this an incredibly intelligent and thought-provoking read and would love to see much more of it around the place as there is just so much to pull from it and from Karen’s experience. How very dare we try to have it all, did you really think you could have the best of conflicting worlds?

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