“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.”
Red Clocks introduces us to a chilling future. Unlike most dystopians, though, this future is closer to modern day. As you read, you become aware that this potential future isn’t hundreds of years in the making, but perhaps, only two. The relevancy we find ourselves in almost makes this book feel more contemporary than a dystopian should feel. We like to imagine a future gone horribly wrong, but Zumas doesn’t let us stay safe in the illusion that this won’t impact us. Instead, she forces us to consider what happens when that future is now. What happens when we see actual possibilities take over?
“Naively ascribing common decency to people in power, as she did before the Personhood Amendment showed all of its teeth.”
Told from the perspective of five distinct women, we see the actual consequences of legislation that gives all consideration to an embryo and none to the women carrying them. Each women is introduced to us, not with their names, but with a description of their role in society. That is a clever detail that I’ll get back to.
Ro, The Biographer, is a teacher. A single woman trying to conceive a baby. This act is much tricker now that adoption is only allowed to married couples, and in vitro fertilization is illegal. She is also writing the biography of Eivor, The Explorer, a 19th century female explorer, unknown to most people.
Susan, The Wife, a married mother of two, who struggles with the monotony of being a stay at home mom. Her marriage is crumbling, and she faces growing unhappiness even though she has what every woman should want.
Mattie, The Daughter, one of the top students in Ro’s class, who puts all her potential at risk with an unplanned pregnancy. Trapped in a losing situation, she becomes desperate for options knowing that there aren’t any.
Gin, The Mender, a solitary woman living in the woods providing natural healing for any willing to seek her out. Looked down on and ridiculed, she prefers living life away from the rest of the town. Except she’s also an easy target for a modern day witch hunt, as she’s arrested and put on trial for breaking these new laws.
The most obvious perspectives that deal directly with the political climate of this society are The Biographer, The Daughter, and The Mender. Each of them is a victim of these new laws in different ways. What I really loved about breaking down the book into these different points of view is that it gives a much richer examination of what the consequences of these laws actually ends up being.
“She knew — it was her job as history teacher to know — how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight, against the will of most of the people.”
This glimpse into all these different women also forces us to really look at how these lives have been impacted. It’s sometimes easy to dismiss someone like The Biographer as a rarity or an anomaly when viewing large sweeping changes like The Personhood Amendment is. However, by getting to know them, it becomes impossible to ignore them. To write them off as unimportant. Giving us their lives forces the reader to get messy with the characters.
The Wife and The Explorer are not directly impacted, one because she’s married with children, and the other because she’s not currently living. But they are relevant to understanding the novel in the scope of women and their roles. The Wife has everything that the legislators think she should want. Indeed, she has what Ro is desperate to have. But, she finds herself increasingly unhappy. Floating in a fog of losing who she is as a separate entity. Not as a mother or a wife. But as herself.
“The wife made persons. No need to otherwise justify what she is doing on the planet.”
Which, is where the brilliance of using these descriptors at the beginning of each narration and not giving the reader their names except through other characters. It reduces the women to their roles, and it’s alarming how quickly and easy it is to simply think of them as those roles. It brings to light how often we do this in society without realizing it.
This also highlights how when we strip people of their names, of the things that make them human, it also becomes easy to dismiss their rights, their hopes, their dreams, their needs. In the form of legislation, for example.
Setting this novel in a small town was a nice touch. Watching as each narrative became entwined with another made sense in that small town setting. How we know people but really have no idea who they are. It highlighted this struggle that we face today. We see the intimate view as we read their perspective, but we also see the assumptions they make, the assumptions that are made against them. It’s an accurate and sad commentary on our current society.
Leni Zumas has created a new type of dystopian. One that isn’t far fetched. Where we can imagine it happening now instead of in the future. It’s one that is modern, but written in such a way that it doesn’t risk becoming dated or irrelevant. This is the type of thought provoking book that should be examined, dissected, and discussed. This is the book that serves as potential warning for complacency. For what happens when we let people govern us without empathy. What happens when we ourselves lose our empathy.
I was incredibly lucky to read this in a book club and even luckier to have the author herself jump into our chats. Grab your friends and put this book in their hands. It’s perfect for book clubs, discussion groups, and classrooms.
Thank you in advance to Leni Zumas for agreeing to participate in an interview, which will be posted here. Thank you for participating in our chats. You made the experience all the more memorable and enriching!
Thank you to Little, Brown for sending me a copy to read, promote and review!