Red Clocksby Leni Zumas Published 16 Jan 2018
|Publisher||Little, Brown and Company|
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Five women. One question. What is a woman for?
In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.
Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro's best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or "mender," who brings all their fates together when she's arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.
"Red Clocks" Reviews
I guess we can probably expect more of these weird feminist(?) dystopias in the wake of The Handmaid's Tale's Hulu series. Between this and the superhero-movie-turned-superhero-book trend, you can pretty much predict the new book trends based on what's popular on the big and small screens.
Here, Zumas imagines a United States where the Personhood Amendment gives rights to unborn embryos, outlawing abortion and IVF (because said embryos cannot give consent). The Canadian government assist by erecting a figurative "Pink Wall" across the U.S.-Canadian border, meaning that they will capture and return any woman suspected of crossing the border for an abortion or IVF.
It sounded fascinating to me. Given the political climate in the U.S. and the fervor of pro-life advocates, it is not a particularly implausible scenario. But, unfortunately, the amount of "literary" frills in Red Clocks made it almost impossible to enjoy (maybe that isn't the right word, but you know what I'm saying).
It is such a painfully cerebral read, and it feels to me like a book of this kind has the greatest impact when you are pulled deep into the lives and horrors of the characters, not viewing them through a distant lens. Red Clocks would be a horror story for many women, including myself, and yet I felt so emotionally-distanced from the story and all four (or you could say five) perspectives.
I have to assume the emotional distance is intentional. Zumas refers to the four main characters as "The Biographer" (Ro), "The Wife" (Susan), "The Daughter" (Mattie) and "The Mender" (Gin), with the fifth perspective being that of fictional explorer, Eivør Minervudottir, who "The Biographer" is writing a book about.
Each of the main four are dealing with womanhood issues that are threatened by the new laws. Ro's perspective is easily the most palatable, though we still have to sit through a vaginal exam that unfolds like this:
On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the shrill funk of an elderly cheese and one being no odor at all, how would he rank the smell of the biographer's vagina? How does it compare with the other vaginas barreling through this exam room, day in, day out, years of vaginas, a crowd of vulvic ghosts? Plenty of women don't shower beforehand, or are battling a yeast, or just happen naturally to stink in the nethers. Kalbfleisch has sniffed some ripe tangs in his time.
Ro is trying desperately to conceive before a new law is introduced banning single parent families. Susan is something of a cliche depressed housewife, struggling with the dissatisfaction of staying home. Mattie is a teenager, pregnant, and unsure of what to do. Gin provides herbal remedies for abortion, amongst other things, and is the modern-day equivalent of a witch under the new amendment.
Zumas experiments with different styles that change as we jump from one character to another. The narrative is fractured and messy - definitely more about experimental writing than telling a compelling and/or important story. I appreciate that this will be better suited to the kind of reader I am not.
Overall, I felt the book was more concept and writing than characters and narrative structure. It really depends on what you're looking for, but I would personally expect a book with this intriguing a premise to contain a strong emotional pull and more of a plot. Oh well. I'm sure similar novels will be on the way.
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DNFed at 20%.
I just couldn't get into it!
Red Clocks can be described as a dystopian novel, but it feels entirely contemporary. Instead of creating a far-off dystopian society, Leni Zumas picks up on trends in our current political climate and thinks them through. What are the consequences of making abortion illegal in the US? How does a woman trying to have a baby on her own navigate a world in which in vitro fertilization is banned and only married couples are allowed to adopt? Where do larger concepts of woman- and motherhood come into play when discussing women's health?
The author asks all these big questions in the grand scheme of things, while also maintaining a certain closeness to its four (arguably, five) main characters. She tells the story of multiple, very different women and weaves all these different narratives together beautifully. Another recent release that this book is destined to be compared to is The Power by Naomi Alderman, which I also read this year and really enjoyed, but which for me lacked a sort of emotional intimacy to its characters. Red Clocks however, reads like both a deeply intimate and emotional character study and a highly complex portrait of a near-future society. It's written incredibly lyrically and even though it's not necessarily a light read, I really enjoyed my time reading this!
--- Thank you to Little, Brown for sending me an advanced reader's copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are entirely my own though (obviously!).
All sorts of things are all over the place. I'm supposed to decipher it? Really? Overall this didn't feel like a readable material. At all. DNF. I don't want to torture myself with it anymore. It's probably very forward and front-looking and experimental and feminist and corresponds to a bunch of other buzz-words, still it's incomprehensible. It's like a bunch of books got intermixed along with some other material, probably (including oversized to-do lists, random thoughts and all sorts of notes by different people). I'm sorry to say that. I really wanted this book to amount to something more than this.
It seems that labias, vaginas, uteruses and pubic hair have gone amock and created this. Personally, I prefer all those parts to be attatched to humans, thinking ones, with personalities to show along with the rest. This is not the case here.
I didn't like its disjointed style, references to 'biographer' as well as all the hype. The emotional part felt a tad tedious. Why clocks? Why red? Why that much stuff about some president-elect? Trump? Go to France. Why all the hype?
Oh, gosh. I'm probably the most inattentive person in the world. NOW I get what is depicted on the cover. Ughhhhhh! What for, people? Why do we need to see stylised female parts on a book cover? There some deep motivation behind it? Half the population have these parts. Do men get to publish books with their parts on the cover? (*just an afterthought*)
Two years ago the United States Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.)
She was just quietly teaching history when it happened. Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for. This man thought women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue and thought a lab technician who accidentally dropped an embryo during in vitro transfer was guilty of manslaughter. She had heard there was glee on the lawns of her father’s Orlando retirement village. Marching in the streets of Portland. In Newville: brackish calm.
Short of sex with some man she wouldn’t otherwise want to have sex with, Ovutran and lube-glopped vaginal wands and Dr. Kalbfleisch’s golden fingers is the only biological route left. Intrauterine insemination. At her age, not much better than a turkey baster.
She was placed on the adoption wait-list three years ago. In her parent profile she earnestly and meticulously described her job, her apartment, her favorite books, her parents, her brother (drug addiction omitted), and the fierce beauty of Newville. She uploaded a photograph that made her look friendly but responsible, fun loving but stable, easygoing but upper middle class. The coral-pink cardigan she bought to wear in this photo she later threw into the clothing donation bin outside the church.
Then the new president moved into the White House.
The Personhood Amendment happened.
One of the ripples in its wake: Public Law 116‑72.
On January fifteenth—in less than three months—this law, also known as Every Child Needs Two, takes effect. Its mission: to restore dignity, strength, and prosperity to American families. Unmarried persons will be legally prohibited from adopting children. In addition to valid marriage licenses, all adoptions will require approval through a federally regulated agency, rendering private transactions criminal. (c)
See below some of the parts that admittedly didn't make much sense.
“Either come and deal with him yourself,” calls the wife, “or fuck off.”
Her husband stomps in, lifts the dustcover, sets the needle on the record, unleashes a bouncy guitar.
John goes quiet, wetly heaving.“We are the dinosaurs, marching, marching.“We are the dinosaurs. Whaddaya think of that?”
“The lesson he just learned,” says the wife, “is that if he screams long enough, he’ll get what he wants.”
“Well, good. It’s a hard world.”“We are the dinosaurs, marching, marching.“We are the dinosaurs. We make the earth flat!”
“Could you take him for a walk?” says the wife.
“It’s raining,” says Didier.
“His raincoat’s on the banister.”
“He doesn’t look like he wants to go for a walk.”
“Please do this one tiny thing,” she says.
“I really don’t feel like it.”
“I’m never alone.”
“Well, me neither. I’m with those trous du cul all day, five days a week.” (c)
Herd crumbs into palm.
Wipe down table.
Rinse cups and bowls.
Put cups and bowls in dishwasher.
Soak quinoa in bowl of water.
Rinse and chop red bell peppers.
Put strips in fridge.
Rinse quinoa in sieve.
Put clean, uncooked quinoa in fridge.
Pour water from quinoa soaking into pot of ficus tree.
Spray mist onto snake-like arms of Medusa’s head plant.
Pull clothes out of dryer in basement.
Stack clothes in hamper.
Leave hamper at bottom of stairs to second floor.
Write laundry detergent on list in wallet.Plip, plip, plip, says the kitchen tap.
Nobody on this hill even likes quinoa. ...
Plip, plip, plip.
As if Ro’s not having a kid or a book would make the wife’s life any better.
As if the wife’s having a job would make Ro’s any worse.
The rivalry is so shameful she can’t look at it.
It flickers and hangs.
“Watch the fuck out!” yells the rider, slowing and turning to look at the wife. “It’s bad enough you chose to procreate on a dying planet.”
“Dick,” she calls after him.
Admittedly she was not in the crosswalk.
Admittedly she has added more people to this steaming pile. (c)
If this cycle fails, she isn’t having a biological child.
To adopt from China, your body-mass index must be under 35, your annual household income over eighty thousand. Dollars.
To adopt from Russia, your annual household income must be at least a hundred thousand. Dollars.
To adopt from the United States—as of January 15—you must be married.Are you married, miss? (c)
The last time she had sex was almost two years ago, with Jupiter from meditation group. “Your cunt smells yummy,” he said, extending the first syllable of “yummy” into a ghastly warble. Wiped semen from the dark swirls of his belly hair and said, “You sure you’re not getting attached?”
“Scout’s honor,” said the biographer. (c)
She finishes the pineapple.
Swallows the rest of the water.
Tells her ovaries: For your patience, for your eggs, I thank you.
Tells her uterus: May you be happy.
Her blood: May you be safe.
Her brain: May you be free from suffering. (c)
If she constructs a solid argument, he’ll be convinced.But then you’d actually have to go to counseling with him.
Which might work!
Which would be the whole point.
To feel okay again. Even good.
To stop her throat from hurting when Bex asks “Do you and Daddy love each other?”
To stop reading online articles about the maladaptive coping mechanisms of kids from broken homes.
To stop brokenhomebrokenhomebrokenhome from reeling in her head.
To stop staring at the guardrails. (c)
“Red Clocks” might sound like a dystopian novel, but plenty of conservative politicians are plotting to make it a work of nonfiction. In fact, the author, Leni Zumas, has said that she drew the most frightening details of her story’s misogynistic world from “actual proposals” by men who are currently in control of our government.
Such is the state of affairs in the early 21st century. Feminist writers of speculative fiction don’t need the bizarre rituals of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or even the fantastical elements of Naomi Alderman’s terrific recent novel, “The Power.” Bridles designed for women’s bodies are already hanging in legislators’ barns, just waiting for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to die.
The ordinariness of the world that Zumas imagines is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of “Red Clocks,” her second novel. The story is set in a small Oregon town in a future that Mike Pence can almost see if he stands on his pew. The Personhood Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has nullified Roe v. . . . .
To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
To watch the Totally Hip Video Book Review of this novel, click here:
I could go on, and on, and on, and on about this book, but really the most important thing I can say is that this is now an all-time favorite. It is absolutely brilliant, and I expect to see it not only on "Best Books of the Year" lists, but also "Best Books of the Decade." It's that good.
We follow five different women whose lives interweave in a small coastal town in Oregon. Their world, though very similar to our own, has passed a "Personhood Amendment" recognizing fetuses as full citizens. The most obvious repercussion of this is that abortion is now illegal, but Zumas dives deep into the actual implications of such an amendment. Women and girls who seek abortion are tried with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization is also illegal. International relations are affected as women cross borders with the goals of both ending pregnancies and becoming pregnant. Through the lens of the five women we follow, Zumas examines the repercussions what becomes of human nature when you deny women agency over their own bodies. As a backdrop for the rest of the narrative, it's perfectly executed.
Zumas's writing is a bit experimental, and it works so, so well. It took me a while to pick up on exactly what Zumas is doing, but she often omits the subjects of sentences and writes using fragments. In every case I could see, the grammatical subject was also the subject of that particular chapter, which is to say one of the five women. Much of the book is dedicated to the varied ways in which these women don't have control over their own lives, don't have agency, and by removing them as the subjects of sentences, Zumas creates a beautiful syntactical construction that mirrors the themes of the book. Little things like this, small but brilliant writing choices, are scattered throughout the novel.
I started this review by saying I could go on basically forever about how much I love this book. I'll cut myself off, and just say that Red Clocks is gorgeously, boldly written. It's timely. It's powerful. It's one of the best books I've ever read.