(Little, Brown, 2018)
At first glance, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas sounds like a futuristic, dystopian, science fiction thriller in the vein of Children of Men or The Handmaid’s Tale. The Twenty-Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, dubbed the “Personhood Amendment,” grants life, liberty, and property rights to every human embryo. Abortion is illegal. Since an embryo can’t give its consent to be moved, so is in-vitro fertilization. Performing an abortion or aiding one in any way means being an accomplice to murder. To the north, Canada has enacted what’s called the Pink Wall. Any woman attempting to sneak into Canada for an abortion is turned over to U.S. prosecutors.
With a backdrop of such fertile material, Zumas could have told any number of large, grand-scale stories. But this is not the story of a small group of freedom fighters taking on a shadowy, overreaching government. In fact, the men in power here remain unseen and faceless. Outside of the casual reference to “a fetus-loving new president,” we know next to nothing about them. Instead, the book explores the reverberations of these policies in the lives of four women in a small Oregon fishing town. It doesn’t take long to see that this world isn’t science fiction at all. We’re perilously close to it becoming a reality in our own.
In the narration, Zumas refers to none of her characters by name. Each character is defined either by her role in society or her relationship to someone else. There’s “The Biographer,” Roberta Stephens, a single, middle-aged high school teacher working on a biography of a nineteenth century female Arctic explorer. “Ro” is desperate for a child, but nothing she’s tried so far has worked. She’s running out of time, as soon a new law called “Every Child Needs Two” goes into effect. Under it, unmarried people will be legally prohibited from adopting children.
One of Ro’s students, Mattie, referred to as “The Daughter,” becomes pregnant by a boy in her class. She quietly carries the fear and shame of her pregnancy, afraid to tell her parents and unsure of where to turn. “The Wife,” Susan Korsmo, is stuck in a dead-end, lifeless marriage to one of Ro’s teacher colleagues. Susan has two children of her own, but isn’t sure if she’s thankful of that fact. She wants to leave her marriage but lacks the courage to do so.
Then there’s “The Mender,” Gin Percival, a woman who lives on the outskirts of society. Seen as a witch, Gin helps many women in the town with various medical remedies, abortion being one of them. The fifth major presence is Eivør Minervudottir, the polar hydrologist who is the subject of Ro’s book. Eivør’s story is told through short excerpts between chapters. All five of these women share some connection. Over the course of the novel, these connections are revealed and transformed in surprising ways.
The book is marvelously written. Each character is vivid, and Zumas captures their individual patterns of thought and behavior remarkably. Of them all, The Mender feels the most unnecessary. Her story takes an unexpected turn in the third act. Without it, the book essentially remains the same. Instead, it would have been interesting to see the viewpoint of a female pro-life advocate. I wondered how someone who ardently supports the government would react to some of the characters’ situations. That’s a layer left curiously unexplored. The story is also firmly rooted in place. The town of Newville, Oregon becomes almost like a sixth character, with its beached whales and “the air cold and gritty with salt.”
Red Clocks is a searing and irresistible look at the ways in which women are subjugated, both visible and invisible. Time and again, Roberta brushes up against the stigma of single parenting. She often questions her relentless quest to have a child, wondering if she’s doing it for her own selfish benefit. But that’s a question a couple rarely needs to answer. The social pressure to be a certain kind of parent exists even in a world where the Every Child Needs Two Law doesn’t exist.
Red Clocks shows that when it comes to women’s bodies, and what they choose to do with them, we’re still a long way off from actual freedom. Every day, it feels like the needle is moving, for better or worse. Red Clocks portrays one way that needle might swing, and the reality is not as inconceivable as it first sounds.