In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.
Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
Publication Date: January 16, 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
I’ve seen a lot of reviews that compare Zumas’ novel to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and while both are feminist dystopian novels that deal heavily with reproductive rights/issues, I think it’s important to recognize Red Clocks as its own unique story to avoid certain expectations going into the storyline.
It took me some time to adjust to the formatting of the novel – chapters rotate among four major characters (The Mender, The Daughter, The Wife, and The Biographer) with each chapter broken up by a section of the biographer’s current work on a novel about a female polar explorer. At first, I was worried that I wouldn’t feel connected to the characters just based on the writing style and lack of names, but the reader slowly learns the identities of all four characters as the story progresses. I also finally realized after a few chapters the brilliance of titling each woman by a category rather than a name, as it provided further commentary on how women are often identified by their traditional roles instead of their individual identities. I’m not sure if that was what Zumas meant by this stylistic choice, but I found it to be a clever way to highlight the struggles women go through with societal pressures to fit certain molds (i.e. wife, mother, etc.).
‘I want you to learn a lesson from this. Don’t repeat your mistakes. Like I tell my daughters: be the cow they have to buy.’
‘Don’t be the free milk.’
What made Red Clocks so terrifying is how closely it resembled our political climate. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine a country where Roe vs. Wade has been overturned and a fetus is considered a human being. The interactions between men and women often reminded me of things I’ve heard or even had said to me and the frustration, anger, and sadness all four women experience for various reasons rang true for me – either because I have felt it myself, or because there’s a woman in my life who has gone through it themselves.
Accused witches in the seventeenth century were dunked in rivers or ponds. The innocent drowned. The guilty floated, surviving to be tortured or killed some other way.
This isn’t 1693! the biographer wants to yell.
She shakes her head.
Don’t just shake your head.
While she hid out in Newville, they closed the clinics and defined Planned Parenthood and amended the Constitution. She wanted on her computer screen.
Don’t just sit there watching.
Red Clocks is such a frightening and poignant read because it hits so close to home. There is something in this novel that any woman could relate to and it’s a reminder of how easily one’s rights may be taken away when you become too complacent or comfortable – to think it could never happen here when it so easily can at any moment. While it would be easy to assume this is a depressing novel, I actually felt empowered once I was finished. This is a book that every woman (particularly in America) should read as it’s a reminder of what we are capable of even in the darkest of times if we refuse to settle for what men tell us to accept for ourselves.