Book Review

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

red clocks

This is a work of fiction.  Keep telling yourself that.

Red Clocks is a novel that I was intrigued by as soon as I heard about it, although it was only recently that I bought a copy.  I didn’t plan to read it straightaway (I am trying to clear down my backlist, honest!), but I couldn’t let Red Clocks languish on the shelf.  It feels a little too relevant at the moment, given a recent news headline out of Alabama, as well as comments made by one of Britain’s candidates for Prime Minister about reducing the window in which an abortion is allowed.

FIVE WOMEN. ONE QUESTION: What is a woman for?

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.

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 is set in an America where abortion is outlawed in every state, and where any woman pursuing such a path is considered a murderer in the eyes of the law.  Such women are dealt harsh punishments with no exceptions, even for those pregnancies that are the result of sexual assault.  For those who don’t wish to raise a child, they can put them up for adoption, thus allowing those couples who are unable to have their own children to provide a loving and stable home for them.  And this is specifically couples – the reader discovers that the next step is to ensure that those adopting are a mixed sex couple, this apparently being the ideal scenario in which to raise a child.  The world Zumas has created isn’t really so far removed from our own, and yet I found it to be a horribly dystopian concept, with its regression in the treatment of women and not allowing them the choice to terminate a pregnancy, but also in its treatment of same sex couples.

Zumas’ novel focusses on four characters – the biographer, the mender, the daughter, and the wife – and alternates between their points of view.  Each chapter is clearly signposted, so there’s no confusion as to who is speaking, and each character has a wonderfully distinct voice.  I think that marking out each chapter through the labels of these women was very in keeping with the story, too.  It dehumanises them, and reduces them to something lesser than they are.  Of these characters, Ro (the biographer) and Mattie (the daughter) were my favourites, and it’s no coincidence that these are the two who were most openly against the laws that are in place in Zumas’ vision of America.  Mattie’s tale was particularly heart-breaking and not entirely surprising, and Ro is such a strong, outspoken feminist that I couldn’t help but cheer her on, particularly as she tries to share her views with her students (she works as a teacher, writing a biography in her spare time), going against the propaganda.

Through these characters, Zumas explores the impact of the laws from a variety of perspectives.  The reader sees the lengths that women have to go to in order to terminate a pregnancy, visiting backstreet places of dubious quality, where the chances of infection or something going wrong are high.  For those struggling to conceive, there are few options available with IVF also being made illegal, particularly for those who are single, and therefore less likely to be selected as an adoptive parent.  I found Susan (the wife) to be an interesting counterpoint to the views of Ro and Mattie.  She is married, however unhappily, and has two children, and can afford to be ambivalent about these laws.  I think Susan’s character serves as a warning to those who don’t act through voting etc. given that inaction can have the same results proactive support.

The blurb mentions five women, and the fifth is Eivør Mínervudottír – the subject of Ro’s biographical work.  Each chapter in the novel is separated by an excerpt from Ro’s work in progress, which looks at the life of a woman who, in the 19th century, became an arctic explorer.  It’s clear that Eivør also feels the injustice of inequality, albeit in different ways to the women in the present day, and however she tried to rise above it, the odds were against her.  I wondered if Zumas was reminding us of how things used to be, and that the progress women have made in the last 100 years can be reversed.

As you’ve probably gathered, I found Red Clocks to be an extremely thought-provoking read, and I thought that Zumas explored the potential impact of such measures coming into law brilliantly.  This is a novel which I’m going to optimistically call dystopian fiction, but it’s one that feels a little close for comfort.

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