Red Clocks

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Red Clocks

God, I wanted to love this book. I knew it had controversial reviews, but I was already fan-girling about the premise: a not-so-dystopian future where psycho conservatives have outlawed abortion, in vitro fertilization, and single parent adoption. That’s exactly the kind of too-close-to-home feminist plot I’m hungry for. Plus, it has multiple narrators — my guilty pleasure storytelling tool! 

Unfortunately, by chapter three, I’d hit a wall. Red Clocks is difficult to chew. Other reviews call it too cerebral, weirdly misogynist, with flat stereotypes and an absence of POC characters. I agree with all these critiques. So, I won’t repeat them here, but I encourage any would-be readers of Red Clocks to take a peek at these reviews before they commit to the 350+ pages.

Author: Leni Zumas • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company • Released: 2018

Red Clocks Quotes

“The comparing mind is a despairing mind.”

Leni Zumas, Red Clocks

“She knew—it was her job as a teacher of history to know—how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight, against the will of most of the people.”

Leni Zumas, Red Clocks

“What does the word ‘spinster’ do that ‘bachelor’ doesn’t do? Why do they carry different associations? These are language acts, people!”

Leni Zumas, Red Clocks

“Shut up, she tells her monkey mind. Please shut up, you picker of nits, presser of bruises, counter of losses, fearer of failures, collector of grievances future and past.”

― Leni Zumas, Red Clocks

“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 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.”

Leni Zumas, Red Clocks

That last one rattled my core. I, too, woke up one morning in 2016 to a president-elect I hadn’t voted for who promised he’d overturn Roe v. Wade. That following January, thousands of women put on pinky pussy hats and marched to save their right to a safe and legal abortion… but what if they hadn’t? And what if the Democrats hadn’t won the House in 2018 or the Presidency and the Senate in 2020? 

Right-wing dictators, religious cult members, conspiracy-infected science-deniers and misogynists who’d rather own women than respect them still threaten the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses. I donated to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU after reading this book. Red Clocks’ bloodstained staircases, jagged wire hangers, and incarceration of mostly black and low-income women seeking autonomy over their own damn bodies are a closer reality than we think. We must remain vigilant.

Truthfully, I don’t love any of the Pacific Northwest characters living white, upper middle-class lives in a future America where abortion is outlawed and criminalized. We all know white, upper middle-class white women are the demographic least affected by restrictive abortion laws and bans, but Zumas only alludes to the trauma BIPOC women and poor women experience in her dystopia, and frankly it’s not enough for me.

Additionally, Zumas gives each character a title that often supersedes their name: The Wife, The Daughter, The Biographer, The Mender. I guess this is to apply their archetype to women everywhere (well, white, upper middle-class, able-bodied, healthy women). Predictably, these women’s lives become mundanely intertwined as one of them (I’ll give you two guesses as to who) experiences an unplanned pregnancy, but I wanted more. I wanted a chaos moment or an estrogen-fueled reckoning of this anti-female future society… but I never got one. Instead, I got bitter resentment and exhausted acceptance. However, the character that feels the least like a “Karen” in this book is The Mender, so I’ll talk a bit about her.

A forest dwelling witch descended from the Salem witches themselves, The Mender, or Gin Percival, views the world through visceral smells, tastes, and touches. Zumas captures the disconnected thoughts of The Mender in an unstructured but poetic way. These chapters kept my attention, despite their frequent train-of-thought monologues, because The Mender offers raw perspectives of the quaint oceanside setting. Gin Percival is wild and blunt, and while never as tangible as I’d like, I still enjoyed reading her story and injecting an alluring personality into all the gaps Zumas left unwritten. 

I’ll also give The Wife a special shout out because despite her predictability, her A Dolls’ House-esque character arc felt very real. Red Clocks suffers overall from a disconnecting distance between the reader and its characters; I’m not sure if Zumas wrote the book with a National Geographic tone in mind, but I never truly connected to any of these characters. 

However, I want to splash a glass of red wine all over The Biographer’s smug face and twirl around with a righteous apathy, not caring for one second how the sour women will get the crimson stain out of her dress. Thank you, Zumas, for this hypocritical, judgmental shrew who laments her mayonnaise life page after page after page. Even the feeble attempts to humanize The Biographer through her brother’s ill-timed death did nothing but increase my disgust at such a deflated character. 

Speaking of disgust, Zumas has The Wife lament her vulva multiple times throughout the book describing it as ugly dangling labia that literally clap. Um, can we stop describing women’s post-birth bodies as variations of the word “used?” Please, writers, take an anatomy class, I’m begging you. As much as I tried to interpret these lines as a byproduct of The Wife’s low-self esteem, I couldn’t shake the feeling that “clapping post-birth labia” was a line inspired by authorial internalized misogyny instead of character internalized misogyny. Add this to the way Zumas has The Mender describe her attraction to women–with visceral adjectives better suited for a Pornhub video title than literature (is the author a lesbian or bisexual woman? did she speak to one before writing this character?)—and I worry the misogyny is coming from inside the house. 

I hope I’m wrong.

Additionally, I must mention a super spoiler-y plot moment that made me consider throwing the book across the room. Highlight to read: The I’m-A-Shitty-Fucking-Person Biographer considers asking The Daughter, her literal 15-year-old student, to give her the fetus she’s trying to abort. I’m not joking. I had to read that part aloud to confirm I hadn’t escaped from reality and fallen into a convoluted Glee plot. 

You should read this book if: You enjoy heavy-handy, poetic prose with lots of symbolism, imagery, and AP English metaphors. It’s not my style, and that’s okay, but it’s undeniably well-written. 

However, the book’s tagline “What is a woman for?” never got answered. Maybe that’s the point, but I finished the book frustratingly restless. I think it’s a fine dystopian novel for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale, but after reading other comp titles like The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Station Eleven, or even Mother of Invention, I can’t recommend this book as your first post-Atwood novel. If you’ve exhausted the other feminist dystopian titles on your book list, sure, give Red Clocks a read. If nothing else, the setting of an eerily similar but anti-abortion America will remind you that our fight for reproductive rights and bodily autonomy is far from over.

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