Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks takes place in a world where Roe vs. Wade has been overturned and abortion is again illegal in the United States. In addition, Canada is working with the U.S. to keep any woman seeking an abortion (or other reproductive healthcare) from crossing the border into Canada. And to make matters worse, a new law—"Every Child Needs Two," which stipulates that only married couples may adopt a child—is poised to go into effect at the beginning of the year. In the middle of all this, the novel follows the lives of five women who are connected in various ways:

The Polar Explorer (Eivør Minervudottir)

The Biographer (Ro)

The Mender (Gin)

The Daughter (Mattie)

The Wife (Susan)

The novel is written in alternating sections, each section being headed by the character in question's archetype or function. The character's sense of themselves as a fully realized human being—their complicated experience of the world—is often in conflict with their archetype, which fails to take into account the vastness of what any single human being contains. So Ro (The Biographer) is a writer, yes, but she is also someone who yearns for motherhood but does not want to be in a romantic relationship, someone who professes liberal values but struggles with her ideals when faced with a pregnancy that is not her own, someone who relates to and valorizes the isolation and determination of The Polar Explorer who lived in a different era, and someone who cannot relate to or find compassion for her friend, Susan (The Wife), because all she is able to see in her friend is her own supposed shortcomings.

Never once while reading Zumas's book did I catch myself thinking the word "dystopia," though it technically can be classified as such. The world of the book is too close to our present reality; the mindset too familiar. As someone who grew up in a conservative community in rural Indiana, I've never been able to fully view the extremist positions of radical conservatives as "fringe" politics. I grew up listening to Billy Graham's voice blaring out judgment and condemnation. Though no one in my immediate family besides me has ever been registered to vote in the state of Indiana, my parents supported the likes of Mike Pence in spirit and in mindset. When I was seventeen years old, I got back from a date with my boyfriend (it was our third or fourth date, but the first one of which we were actually allowed to leave the house) a few minutes late; I called my mom ahead of time, after the movie we had gone to see got out, to let her know that the road was icy and we might be slow getting home. Her voice was tight and suspicious on the phone; when we walked through the front door, two or three minutes past the hour, she grabbed my wrist and sat me down at the computer, where she had pulled up an image of a fetus. She immediately bombarded us—abortion is a sin!—if you get an abortion, your dad and I might not find out about it, but God will—you better not be having sex outside of wedlock—etc. etc.  

So while there are some liberals who were shocked when Trump was elected president, who kept telling themselves that his brand of conservativism represents only a small fraction of the American public—extremists, people who are mentally ill, etc—I was never able to console myself in such fashion. There is nothing terribly special or out of the ordinary about my family; they are working class, fundamentalist Christians, and like most families, they are complicated. They provided me with love and support. The love was not always felt, and the support was conditional—the point is, these beliefs don't just belong to men who collect guns in their sheds. It belongs to mothers making blueberry pancakes for Sunday brunch. It belongs to people who are too caught up in their own lives to examine them from someone else's perspective. And this takes me to what I loved most about Red Clocks: its exploration of rivalry, specifically the rivalry that happens between people who are without power.

Throughout the novel, we see instances of characters harboring unkind thoughts toward one another, and the unkind thoughts are almost always an inversion of their own fear and insecurity. When Susan says to her daughter, "I wish you'd be seen and not heard for once in your life," Ro's reaction is to be pleased that "Susan could be an unskillful parent." Her reaction is relatable—it stems from her own woundedness about not being able to be a parent, and more importantly, the cultural attitude that as a forty-something, single woman, she herself is not fit to be a parent. Likewise, when Didier calls Ro "neurotic," Susan defends her friend out loud, but inside "it pleases her to hear him say it," because it's easier to think of Ro as neurotic than confront her own lack of fulfillment, the tedium of her life inside a conventional marriage.

Zumas's characters aren't unaware of the pettiness of their rivalry, but awareness isn't the same thing as doing something about it:

            How can the wife hope that Ro doesn't get pregnant? Doesn't publish her book on the ice      


            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.

            It waits.

This notion of awareness vs action, knowing about something versus doing something about it, extends beyond the personal; in the courtroom, during Gin's trial, The Biographer finds herself thinking about witches from the seventeenth century:

            This isn't 1693! the biographer wants to yell.

            She shakes her head.

            Don't just shake your head.

            While she hid out in Newville, they closed the clinics and defunded Planned Parenthood          

            and amended the Constitution. She watched on her computer screen.

            Don't just sit there watching.

Real powerlessness doesn't come from laws and lawmakers; it comes from the afflicted turning against each other (Ro and Susan, The Mender and Lola). The tool that patriarchy has always used against women is isolation from each other, which is not the same as the self-imposed isolation of the Polar Explorer, who was in search of something, led by passion, curiosity, love. The isolation of patriarchy comes from a place of fear, insecurity, and self-doubt. Our inability to empathize calcifies us in our hurts and wants, stops us from connecting and becoming our most powerful selves, which is to say, a plural self, a community.

The most compelling parts of the novel, for me, were the women's relationships to each other, how they viewed the other and themselves in proximity to the other. It's impossible to talk about this without mentioning Yasmine, and her conspicuous absence.

It's noticeable that the one character who isn't white doesn't have a physical presence in the story; her own drama unfolded before the start of the book's narrative, and whatever came of it happens outside the realm of the book—we do not hear from Yasmine in the present tense. Her voice has been effectively silenced.

Moreover, there is a kind of hole in the story, an invisible but palpable presence, an unposed question: how have the new laws affected communities of color or the lgbtqa community? Who is most vulnerable in this world where conventional, conservative values are being enforced? It feels simultaneously like an oversight and like part of the point (Zumas herself addresses the novel's relationship to race in an interview with David Naimon in Between the Covers—I won't go into depth here, but it's worth knowing that the author was thinking about Oregon's racist history as she was exploring the setting of this book)—these fairly privileged white women are so stuck in their lives, their wants, their defensiveness that they can't even see each other, or have compassion for each other, let alone think of the ways these laws are affecting people even more marginalized than they. Yasmine exists only in flashback, only on the fringes of this particular narrative—yet hers is perhaps the most dramatic example of what these laws mean to real people. The untold stories are often the hardest to look at. And they remain untold so long as we see ourselves, our stories, in competition with each other.

In Yasmine's absence (which is simulatneously a looming presence) I was reminded of the absent character of Percival in Virginia Woolf's novel, The Waves. Like Red Clocks, The Waves alternates between the point of view of various, interconnected characters, and like the characters in Red Clocks, the characters in The Waves are constantly having to navigate themselves in relation to others, and the way we use other people like mirrors. In The Waves, Percival dies at war and is only brought in through the memories of other characters, and his absence becomes a character in its own right. Mattie and Yasmine were best friends in the not-so-distant past of the novel, yet mostly what Mattie recalls of her friend is the refrain "ignorant white girl." Supposedly this is something Yasmine said to Mattie at some point in time, but it has grown inside Mattie, taken on a life of its own. The voice is mocking; it takes on a similar quality as the lists Ro writes, lists of reasons she should not be a mother, reasons given to her not by herself but by the culture she lives in:

            1.  You're too old.

            2.  If you can't have a child the natural way, you shouldn't have one at all.

            3.  Every child needs two parents.

            4.  Children raised by single mothers are more liable to rape/murder/drug-take/score low    

            on standardized tests.

            5. You're too old.

            6.  You should have thought of this earlier.

            7.  You're selfish.

            8.  You're doing something unnatural.

            9.  How is that child going to feel when she finds out her father is an anonymous       


            10.  Your body is a grizzled husk.

            11.  You're too old, sad spinster!

            12.  Are you only doing this because you're lonely?

In contrast to Ro's lists, it's not that Yasmine's words (ignorant white girl) don't have validity or truth to them; it's that in place of remembering her friend—her whole, real friend—Mattie is remembering the part of her friend that is a reflection of herself. She can't make room to imagine the present pain or fear or danger her friend may currently be experiencing because she is too busy feeling guilty. And guilt is another form of insecurity, a projection of our own importance, an inability to make room inside our own pain for someone else's.

            In many ways this book addresses women who, in various ways, just want to be left alone—from laws that would regulate their bodies and their choices, from expectations of womanhood and the internalized voices of misogyny and self-doubt. Zumas's book is not only profoundly relevant due to the political climate; it carefully scrutinizes the way we see ourselves in relation to others, keeping in mind that nothing is ever only one thing, that "the other Lighthouse was true too." The things that ought to unite us—not wanting to be boxed into a constrained idea of what a woman is, for example—are often left unsaid and therefore become inextricable from our shame. Our fear of being isolated often results in us isolating ourselves—patriarchy's most trusted tool, after all, is to weaponize us against ourselves. 

Red Clocks cover.jpg
Darla Mottram