Reviewed by Ron Charles
nolead ends Red Clocks might sound like a dystopian novel, but plenty of conservative politicians are plotting to make it a work of nonfiction. In fact, author Leni Zumas has said she drew the most frightening details of her story's misogynistic world from "actual proposals" by men currently in control of our government.
The story is set in a small Oregon town in a future in which the Personhood Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has nullified Roe v. Wade and criminalized abortion. Anyone who tries to end her own pregnancy is jailed - assuming she survives the poisons and coat hangers. A sprawling Pink Wall along our northern border keeps desperate girls and women from seeking relief in Canada.
Zumas lays down these conditions without any particular drama: There is no siege or state of war or climate of terror. Instead, her novel stays rooted in the everyday experiences of four women we hear from, one at time, in short chapters. Susan is trapped in an unhappy marriage, trying not to resent the burden of her two toddlers, while pleading with her husband to attend couples therapy.
Ro is a high school teacher impoverishing herself with expensive medical treatments to conceive a child before her biological clock runs out. One of Ro's students, Mattie, is a smart teenager with a promising academic future, but her unwanted pregnancy has thrown all that into doubt.
And Gin is a hermit who knows how to use the forest herbs to heal sicknesses and end pregnancies. Zumas labels each chapter: "The Wife," "The Biographer," "The Daughter," "The Mender" - a constant reiteration of the constricting roles these women are forced to inhabit.
This chorus of women's voices is punctuated by snippets from a biography Ro is working on. She gets no encouragement from her fellow teachers and has little chance of finding a publisher, but something compels her to keep writing the story of a forgotten woman, Eivor, born in 1841 on an island off the coast of Iceland. Eivor's experiences, often brutalizing, sometimes life-threatening, serve as a kind of lodestar for Ro, indeed for all these women who persist through bone-chilling loneliness and disappointment to make the lives they choose.
This provocative exploration of female longing, frustration, and determination couldn't be more timely. Political without being doctrinaire, Red Clocks expands the dimensions of our most pressing social debate.