Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Imagine a United States much like ours. Now make abortion illegal. Endow embryos with legal rights and personhood according to a Constitutional Amendment. Outlaw in-vitro fertilization because said embryos can't give consent to be transferred from lab to uterus. Set this alternate American story on the eve of the implementation of a law that states that only married couples can adopt because "Every Child Needs Two." This is the world that Leni Zumas has created in her novel, Red Clocks, a world quietly at war against women.

Four women in a small Oregon town, a history teacher (called The Biographer), an herbalist who lives alone in the woods (called The Mender), a pregnant teenager (called The Daughter), and a discontented stay at home mother (called The Wife) are all straining against society's definition of them.  In the erasure of their identities, they are simply the embodiment of their roles rather than individual women who have hopes and dreams and complicated feelings. Naming them according to their roles strips them of their personhood much as the ever tightening laws about women do. But Zumas isn't consistent with their anonymity, allowing other characters to call the women by their names, which confuses matters. Ro, the history teacher, is single, in her forties, and cannot seem to conceive a biological child through IUI. Time is running out for her to adopt as the law restricting adoptions to married couples only is mere weeks away from becoming reality. As she struggles with the unfairness of her situation, especially in contrast to Susan (The Wife) who appears to have it all and pregnant teenager Mattie (The Daughter), she is also writing a biography of a little known, female Faroese polar explorer named Eivor Minervudottir who faced her own immense struggles against the ideas of men and their ideas of women's place in the world. Susan, the wife, has two children she loves but her marriage is unhappy and she feels and rejects the pressure to be the perfect wife, entirely eschewing cleaning and cooking a certain way and demanding some time to herself to escape her children and their constant needs. She keeps hoping that her husband will be the one to end their marriage because she dreads being seen to be the one who ruined everything. Mattie, the daughter, who is Ro's student and Susan's occasional babysitter, is fifteen and pregnant. She knows what happens to girls who seek abortions and are discovered but she doesn't care. She just doesn't want to be pregnant and she'll go to extreme lengths to find a way to terminate despite the fact that her own parents would never approve. Gin, the mender, is looked at askance in town, living as she does, out in the woods, supplying women with herbal healing concoctions. It is to Gin that Mattie first goes in her quest for an abortion. And it is Gin who is the thin skein of connection between the other three women.  How this unkempt, witchy woman is connected to each of them gets revealed slowly throughout the novel as she herself comes under unwanted scrutiny and is placed at risk.

This could be a frightening view of our political future but it was actually more about society's defining of women's roles than it was about the laws that curtail their freedoms (although it is about some of that too), laws that aren't so far off in the imagination now. The four women, and Eivor the explorer too, must conform or be punished, must suffer quietly or be outcast, or be considered unnatural. The chapters alternated between each of the women and either a small fragment of Eivor's diary or Ro's biography of her (it's unclear which it is), showing how each woman chafed at her situation. The characters each showed a different face of what society expects of women but in doing so they became fairly stereotypical. If intentionally drawn to show they acquiesced to what was expected of them, Zumas has succeeded but this also meant they lacked the engaging emotional depth of more complex characters, which made the reader less interested in their stories. Their stories, individually or collectively, didn't feel as if they were the most important things here though anyway. Unfortunately the message of the novel took precedence over the plot. For as interesting as the premise was, once the reader got used to the staccato prose style and choppy narrative, this ended up being fairly pedestrian. Maybe that makes it all the scarier as a near future dystopia. That certainly seems to be true for many other readers; it just wasn't for me.

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