Red Clocks is the latest work from Portland-based writer Leni Zumas, and has already been compared to the influential writing of Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman’s brilliant bestseller The Power.
On the front, the cover asks the reader ‘what is a woman for?’ a question that immediately conjures up images of motherhood and all that it is associated with. Yet, in Zumas’ undisclosed yet presumably near-future society, questions of the maternal are pushing the limits of the five women featured in the book.
Oregon – the edge of America. The thrashing waves against the rocks on the coast, the misty, eerie weather, a naturalistic and vast state. And also the setting of the tantalisingly terrifying novel, Red Clocks. In Zumas’ world, abortion is illegal in every state, punishable by a hefty prison sentence for even rape victims, the mentally ill, the pre-teens who made a mistake. There are few safe options for the women who feel desperately trapped.
There are more rights given to the unborn embryos – life, liberty and property – than to the women who unwillingly carry them.
As a young woman – and a woman who has no plans to have children in the near future – the novel intrigued yet scared me. I have followed America’s fascination with women and their childbearing rights since university and, like many others feared what would happen following Trump’s inauguration last year. The reversal of Roe vs. Wade isn’t a topic to be taken lightly. It is a very real, very violent possibility.
In Zumas’ novel, five women narrate their lives since the law change and what the pro-life society has in store for them. For this isn’t a law that just affects the pregnant teen or the rape victim. The characters show us just how widespread and devastating the consequences of such a law and society could be.
We have the ‘witch doctor’ on trial for helping to nurse a victim of domestic violence, the teenager who struggles to find a way to terminate her accidental pregnancy, the mother-of-two who is not as privileged or happy as she appears, the single school-teacher and writer who is desperate for a baby, and finally the distant yet ever-present polar explorer, whose notes and frustrating biography interject the tales of the other women.
Each section and female voice stands completely alone and as powerful as one other. As is common with alternating narratives, all the women know each other or at least have a connection to each other. Their battle with the Personhood Amendment is intertwined as one.
The novel certainly builds and becomes more and more hopeless as the pages go on. Yes, some conflicts are resolved, but others are not. There isn’t really a ‘happy ending’ as such for anyone, something that I appreciated most about this book.
IVF is also banned and a new law is about to come into place. The fight for complete control over women and their bodies and their family decisions is seemingly not over yet. This is something that we feel all too well in the minefield that is America.
There is violence and decay on every page, and it is so beautifully done. A group of dead and bloated whales washed up on the beach, the image of the recently aborted insides of a young girl in a clear plastic bucket, the cold and frosted body in a chest freezer in the forest, the soap scum around the sink of a filthy house. The message is clear – America is decaying, it is desperate. It is a bleak, brutal and dirty place.
It would be wrong to call all the characters powerful females. For they are not; they give into their own weaknesses and don’t speak up when they should do. They are not actively protesting the Personhood Amendment Act, just as many of us do not actively protest the laws which are in place now that limit a person’s livelihood. There are times where I was internally screaming at the pages of Red Clocks, frustrated by a character’s decision or lack of awareness at the space around her. Yet I felt their hopelessness and followed each on their journey.
I think this point is important and possibly the biggest takeaway from the brilliant novel. The hidden lives and struggles of all the characters are worthy of praise in their own right, even if one does seemingly suffer more than the others. The final, almost cannibalistic interjections from the polar-explorer stuck with me the most. It is a horrifying and beautiful moment, yet it does not bring any solace.
There is nothing fleeting about the feelings of female identity, frustration and societal expectations expressed in this novel, and Red Clocks/Leni Zumas wants to make sure you know that.
Red Clocks is available in most good bookshops and online. It is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2018
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