by Leni Zumas
Published 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0316434812
By Noah Sanders
So much speculative fiction (née sci-fi) these days centers around a catastrophic change to the world we know. A humanity ending drought, a nuclear war, a shift in the balance of human/robot relations—a massive event that renders the world and our place in it almost entirely unrecognizable. Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, a book that just barely dips its toes into the pond of speculative fiction, does quite the opposite. Instead, Zumas leaves Earth, the small rain-soaked coastal town of Newville to be specific, physically intact, instead positing an alternative (though very possible) future where abortion has been made entirely illegal by the United States of America. Into this altered America, where one can go to jail for murder for aborting a fetus and be considered an accomplice for assisting in one, Zumas weaves the stories of four women in the same small town, all of them somehow affected by the want, need, or presence of becoming pregnant. Red Clocks uses the smaller stories of its beautifully crafted characters to show the cascading effects on the individual, and in part society, when the right to express the individuality is stripped away from us.
Zumas doesn’t force the concept at the center of Red Clocks on to the reader; instead each of her characters—The Wife, The Daughter, The Mender and The Biographer (the characters reduced to simple abstracts like the women of America)—grapple with the effects of the law on their own small lives. The Wife, a mother of two who seeks to extricate herself from a loveless marriage, is tangled within the amoral implications her choice would bestow upon her. The Mender, a witch-like herbalist who specializes in the gynecological needs of her patients, finds herself at the mercy of the law when her methods become public. The Biographer, a 42-year old woman writing a biography of a 19th century Arctic explorer, wants nothing more then to have a child, but is betrayed by a deadline and by her own body. The Daughter, a pregnant high schooler, simply wants to rid herself of a child, but must thread the dangerous needle of a newly principled America. Though each character is a marvel to behold—Zumas bestows each with a richly unique voice—it is their interactions with each other and the imposed boundaries where the book truly shines.
Again, Zumas weaves together the women, and their various states of being almost seamlessly. The Daughter is a babysitter to The Wife, voyeur on the life of a women with children. The Wife’s husband—a deliciously awful French-Canadian named Didier—works with The Biographer who teaches The Daughter and uses The Mender to try and improve her chances of pregnancy. These are just a few of the connections—some fleeting, some generational—that Zumas threads through the book, each allowing more insight, more emotion on the subject of pregnancy, and the opportunity to move the narrative of each character steadily and often times surprisingly forwards. These are characters who deeply want—a baby, the lack of one, escape from their lives or just to ability to continue living them as they see fit—and the paths they stride to get where they want are fascinating and sometime shocking.
Though it may seem that Red Clocks is a book hammering home a pro-choice agenda—and its portrayal of the sterile world of gynecology and the government’s ham-fisted dismissal of a woman’s right to choose can be scathing—it is more so about being deprived of being able to live a life the way you choose. Zumas’s deeply flawed, beautifully human characters struggle—sometimes under the yoke of the abortion laws, sometimes in accordance with them—to live their lives as they see fit. Each is held back and each fights with varying degrees of success to move forward, to take control of what they quietly know is theirs. It is to Zumas’s credit that not all of her characters end where they hope. Instead, though many have failed at their intended goals, and the ominous decree of the United States government still hangs above them, as the book closes, the needle for each, and for their abilities to exist as individual women has inched slightly forward. And in the small world Zumas has crafted, it feels monumental.