It’s frightening to think how close we are to the world Zumas depicts in Red Clocks.

opening remarks

Once again I find myself picking-up a novel that’s getting buzz and critical attention – Red Clocks by Leni Zumas.  That’s also one suggestive cover.

knee-jerk observations

If the cover is suggestive, the opening pages are about as subtle as Trump’s State of The Union speech:

The Biographer wants to have a child.  She’s taken Clomid, but, apart from thinning the lining of her uterus, it’s had bugger all effect.  So she’s been prescribed a new drug:

Also a normal day in my house:

Having skimmed the back cover copy – not something I generally do – I know that Red Clocks is set in an America (Oregon to be precise) where abortion and in-vitro fertilisation is illegal, and embryos are granted a right to life and liberty.  The novel provides us with four female viewpoints that alternate (more or less) sequentially.  We begin with The Biographer – who, as noted above, wishes to become pregnant – we then meet The Mender – who lives on her own with two goats in the middle of nowhere – followed by The Daughter – who loses her virginity in the back of a car – and finally The Wife – who has an important question to ask her husband that she keeps putting off.  Between each chapter is a fifth female voice, small excerpts from a biography of Eivør Mínervudottír, a 19th Century polar explorer (though not based on an actual person).  It should come as no surprise as to who is writing the biography.

Ro Stephens (The Biographer) visits The Mender who, aside from tending her goats, also provides gynaecological examinations.  The Mender, though, doesn’t prescribe drugs… at least not of the synthesised in a lab variety:

Just as you can imagine the Trump administration via the Supreme Court making abortion illegal in America, Zumas take on a de-funded PBS seems inevitable.

At this stage of the narrative, the ‘Pink Wall’ is the closest that Red Clocks gets to a Handmaid’s Tale type scenario (PR people and the critics have compared the novel to Atwood’s classic).

The Biographer, Ro, has just pissed on her ovulation predictor, desperate to know whether her eggs are viable.  I love that Zumas doesn’t skip any steps of the process, going as far as to describe The Biographer’s struggle to aim her stream at the predictor:

And now that Ro is ovulating she needs to be inseminated the next day.  Again Zumas doesn’t pull the camera away.  She wants us to know, to understand that with these draconian laws in place Ro’s only option is to be turkey-basted by a Doctor who couldn’t give a shit.  It’s powerful because it’s so cold and methodical.

I’ve focussed quite a bit on The Biographer because her desire to be a mother and her infertility issues hit close to home.  Ro’s story – as presented by Zumas – isn’t something I’ve seen portrayed with this much attention to detail in a fictional context.  The Daughter’s story (her name is Matilda) and The Wife’s story (her name is Susan) are compelling but far more familiar.  Matilda is pregnant and wants to abort, a near impossible exercise in an America that has banned the practice (she considers throwing herself down a flight of stairs) while Susan desires couple counselling with her husband (who teaches at the same school as Ro).  The Mender (her name is Gin) also treads a well-worn path in as much as she stands in for the wise woman (people call her a witch behind her back) who provides alternative (natural) medicines to women who can’t afford to buy drugs or where no legal option exists.

This excerpt refers to the day 39 States ratified the 28th Amendment to the Constitution making abortion illegal.  The sentiment though is true:

For very good reasons Red Clocks is a novel preoccupied with female genitalia and a frank portrayal of the vagina.

The Mender is on trial for medical malpractice and for conspiracy to commit murder (because she was willing to provide an abortion).  While Gin does offer that service, in secret out in the woods, it’s not the case in this particular instance.  She is being framed by a husband – the school principal – who, to hide the brutal way he treats his wife, Lola, has taken advantage of the anti-abortion laws.  Gin does not like her chances:

The whole book is expressed in this one short conversation/argument about what constitutes a meaningful life for a woman.  Of course, the answer is that both Ro and Susan are correct:

The Gist Of It

Ron Charles (book reviewer for the Washington Post and a favourite critic of mine) gets it right when he says that it’s the ordinariness of Red Clocks that makes it so disturbing.  It takes very little effort to imagine an America where abortion is illegal, where IVF and the freezing of eggs has been banned (though freezing sperm is still OK, which speaks volumes as to the real target of the Laws) and where only a mother and father can adopt, single parents need not apply (it’s never made clear whether same-sex couples can adopt).  Setting the novel in Salem, Oregon, with a population of about 150,000 only normalises things further.  While these Laws do directly affect our four protagonists in fundamental ways, everyday life keeps rattling along.

While I know the comparisons have been made Red Clocks is not The Handmaidens Tale; it does not depict a dystopian society where fertile women are raped on a monthly basis and where the freedom to associate or just leave your house without a chaperone has been banned.  What it does depict is an America that’s making strides in The Handmaidens Tale direction.  Just like the boiling frog, the people of Oregon and America have adapted to the changes.  There is a suggestion of a women’s movement protesting these Laws, but their activities occur off screen and have little bearing on the lives of our protagonists (not until the very end anyway).

It’s because everything is so ordinary and familiar – the wife unhappy with her husband, the woman who desperately wants a child but can’t seem to get pregnant, even the teenage pregnancy – that when the Laws are applied, we can’t help but feel horrified.  Zumas, therefore, should be applauded for not taking the full-on dystopian approach, the sort that’s easy to ignore because it’s never clear how the society got that way.  While she doesn’t dive into the nuts and bolts of the changes (Rowe v Wade is mentioned once), the reader can readily fill in the gaps.

This also means she can focus on her characters, explore how those changes affect their lives.  My favourite viewpoint was that of Ro (and not just because I related to her plight, she also has a dark sense of humour) but all the characters are well developed, and in each case, you can’t help but engage with the almost insurmountable challenges they face.  The fact that Red Clocks has a near optimistic ending is a testament to Zumas’ refusal to take the most obvious route, to misery-up the story because of dystopian expectations.  The true horror of this novel isn’t the way the plot unfolds but that there are those who will read this book and see it as the beginning of a great utopia.