In Red Clocks, Leni Zumas imagines a terrifying and all-too-easily-plausabile future in which the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty and property to all embryos from the moment of conception. Abortion is illegal in all states and women caught attempting abortion or assisting in abortions can be charged with murder.
Red Clocks was incredible in so many ways. It’s a book I’d like to read again, simply because there were so many layers, I’m certain there were things I didn’t pick up on the first time around. It was also a book that grew on me–I was hooked from the beginning, but Zumas made certain narrative and stylistic choices that I didn’t fully appreciate until after I’d finished.
The novel concerns the lives of four different women in a small Oregon town. Ro is a high school history teacher who desperately wants a child. She is nearing the end of her childbearing years, and she is racing against the clock, as a new law forbidding single women from adopting is about to go into effect. Mattie is one of Ro’s smartest students, a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant. Susan is the mother of two young children, unhappy in her marriage and struggling with how to change her life. Gin is a recluse and healer; she lives in a small cabin in the woods and offers herbal remedies to women seeking abortions.
Threaded through the narratives of these women is the story of Eivor Minervudottir, an obscure 19th century arctic explorer who, despite making brilliant scientific discoveries about ice, was largely ignored and discounted by the scientific community due to the fact that she was a woman. Ro is obsessed with writing her biography, and fragments of this work-in-progress appear throughout the novel.
At first I found this somewhat off-putting. The style is most experimental in these sections, and I could not figure out what it added to the story. But it all comes together beautifully in the end. The similarities in how women are treated in a dystopian-esque 21st century and the 19th century are chilling. Eivor Minervudottir faced much of Zuman’s protagonists face, and the connections between them are impossible to ignore.
In so many ways, Red Clocks felt like a pean against the binary. There is not one way to be a mother, a woman, a human. As soon as we start trying to dictate “how to be”, lives being to crumble. It’s a book about boxes. The boxes we put ourselves in, the boxes other people put us in, the boxes we’re forced into. Zumas explores what it means to be a woman in a society that exploits women, and she does this by weaving a rich story of four women who refuse to be defined in only one way. By examining the consequences of a misogynistic law that does not allow for nuance of any kind, Zumas makes the danger of those boxes something you feel deep in your bones.
Throughout the book, Zumas uses monikers to refer to her characters. Though they have names, they never refer to themsleves this way. They are “the wife”, “the biographer”, “the mender”, “the daughter”. At first I found this slightly irritating–they weren’t nameless, after all. But the effect, in the end, is startling. Not only are these four women forced to confirm to certain roles in society, but they begin to see themselves this way. It was executed brilliantly.
The four characters in Red Clocks all have different (and complicated) relationships with motherhood, pregnancy, family. The character development is spectacular. Each woman represents a different way of relating to motherhood, but these characters never feel like symbols. They want different and specific things. Zumas paints a layered tapestry of the many ways to exist as a woman in a society that often equates womanhood with motherhood. The book works because the characters are unique. Their stories their own. It’s universal, but it’s universal because of the detail. It never felt vague or preachy, and much of that had to do with the strength and complexity of the characters.
I also loved how much agency Zumas gave her characters. She’s writing about an oppressive society; terrible things are happening. But though the four main characters are sometimes lost, angry, hopeless, sad, exhausted, they are never helpless. There is also a subtle but beautiful theme of women taking care of each other. The lives of Ro, Susan, Mattie and Gin intertwine in really interesting ways. Often they don’t like each other, or they hurt each other, or they find themselves on opposite sides of a situation. But they stand up for each other and take care of each other in big and small ways.
On top of the great plot, compelling characters, and thoughtful, chilling social commentary, this is one of those books with a perfect ending. It was open-ended; possibilities seemed to explode outward from the last page. But it was also deeply satisfying. Zumas refused to tie everything up in a bow. This was a messy book about messy people with messy lives. It was surprising and unexpected at times. Ultimately, it was hopeful. The ending reflected all the bigness of life.
One last thought: this novel has been called dystopian, and I suppose, technically, it is. It’s set in a future in which terrible things have come to pass. But it didn’t feel dystopian. Not only is it set in what feels like contemporary America, but there’s been no government takeover, no climate disaster, no world war. It got me thinking about how we define “dystopian” and why. I thought a lot about past atrocities while reading this book–slavery, Jim Crow, mass lynchings, our current era of mass incarceration. The future Zumas imagines is not worse than anything that’s happened in America’s past. We’ve had laws as bad as the Personhood Amendment. We’ve had worse.
I realize that the word dystopian connotes the future, but I think it’s worth thinking about where and when we apply that word. Who decides what’s dystopian and what’s history? We have as much to learn from our past as we do from any imagined and terrible future.
This is one I recommend with my whole heart.