Book of the Month: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
review by Lucy Caradog
Red Clocks follows the trend of feminist dystopian fiction that originates in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale, a trend that had recently been popularised by the above’s adaptation into a Netflix show and books such as The Power by Naomi Alderman. The book follows four women in a small coastal town in the US, and the way each of their lives are impacted by their country's developing reproductive laws: abortion is illegal, and adoption by single parents is in the process of being banned. Through a pregnant teen to a barren teacher, and from a dissatisfied housewife to a self-sufficient recluse, Red Clocks explores the question “What is a woman for?”
Perhaps most unsettling about this novel is how realistic a dystopia it is: in a world where abortion and miscarriage are taboo and Trump’s wall is a common phrase, it is all too easy to conceive of any termination to a pregnancy being illegal, and for the “Pink Wall” stopping Americans from seeking abortions in Canada being a reality. However, one could also see the believability of the plot as taking away from the shock factor, one of the reasons that I don't see Red Clocks as ever being perceived as groundbreaking in it's genre. Regardless, it is a well-written piece, and Leni Zumas creates four very complex protagonists. Despite the possibility of sex being central to the theme of reproductive rights, Zumas curtails this by instead examining each individual character’s relationship with her own body, and how her role in the reproductive cycle defines her as a person. With Ro, the infertile teacher who desperately wants to be a mother, we explore a woman faced with society's expectations a family, of motherhood, of relationships, and of what a single independent woman “should” want or not want for herself; but ultimately she is a woman who isn't trying to prove anything, neither to society nor to herself. She just wants to be a mother. Sex and relationships are irrelevant to her storyline, she is her own person. I found this refreshing in a society that ties motherhood so closely with complacency, and so far from independence.
I found many similarities between Red Clocks and last year’s Bailey's Prize winner, The Power, notably switching between four protagonists to create an overview of the dystopia. There are two major differences in how this tool is used:
Whilst The Power features a male protagonist alongside his female counterparts to give a more complete view of the story, Red Clocks features solely female protagonists. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it leaves the book with an absence of sympathetic male characters. It is easy to group men together and label them “the villain”: they control our bodies, our brains, they take credit for our work and ideas, and without us they would be done for. What is more compelling is to witness a mix of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, male and female, so as to understand that genders cannot be grouped together, and nothing is black and white. Zumas unfortunately does not do this, and so there is no discussion or debate: her characters play into modern gender stereotypes.
In The Power, the four protagonists are from different parts of the world, and therefore show us the big picture, how the plot affects the world as a whole. In Red Clocks, the protagonists are all from the same small coastal town, therefore giving us a comprehensive portrait of the town, but little insight into how the reproductive laws are affecting other countries. Whilst there is something to be said for limiting the readers knowledge of the world outside the novel’s periphery (The Handmaid’s Tale is a good example of this), Red Clocks, as a dystopia that mirrors America's current political climate in a reality where the US is a world power, would benefit from exploring how other countries react to these new fictional reproductive laws. Would they spread to the rest of the world? Would other foreign policies cry against this, leading America to further ostracise itself from the world?
Overall, I found Red Clocks, despite being well-written and relatively captivating, left me unphased. I think it is safe to say that a definite genre is distinguishing itself in contemporary literature, that of the feminist dystopia, and that there will be many more books of this ilk to come. I am however excited to read other pieces by Leni Zumas, who strikes me as a very promising author waiting to distinguish herself in contemporary literature.
Red Clocks is available to buy here.
Lucy Caradog is a feminist book-lover and freelance writer, currently studying English and American Literature at the University of East Anglia. As a co-founder of her university's Feminist Book Club, she does a lot of her writing on the Feminist Book Club blog , and on various other blogs and zines.