Publication date: January 16th 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Dystopian, Fiction, Literary
From the very beginning reading Red Clocks is like looking through a very grimy window. Everything is tinged with dirt and difficult to see, much less see clearly. Four women, each speaking in alternating chapters and never revealing their names, only their most defining characteristic: the Biographer, the Mender, the Wife, the Daughter. In chapters not their own, others use their real names for them: Ro, Gin, Susan, and Mattie, and all are dealing with some aspect of pregnancy—wanting it or not. Initially I wasn’t even sure of the novel’s timeline and thought it was set long ago and the characters were huddling around outdoor fires on the Oregon coast. It was almost a quarter of the way through, with the announcement of the constitutional amendment giving fetuses ‘personhood’ and a new law allowing only straight married couples to adopt, that I felt the weight drop onto my shoulders. Oh…dystopia and in the not-so-distant future. As in, it might be happening in America soon.
The stories of these four women are so dark, as are the women themselves. There is sympathy for Gin and Mattie, two young women caught by their circumstances, but any sort of feeling is harder to come by for Susan and Ro. Their lives are on the opposite sides of the spectrum—Susan, a married stay-at-home mother with two young children who fights the urge to run her car off a cliff and Ro, a high school teacher whose longing for a baby is so great she fantasizes about running away with the pregnant Mattie so she can keep her baby. They are grown women and while life may not have turned out the way they wanted their pathos feels like chewing sand—gritty and unpleasant with no flavor. Even with the dire state of the new federal laws it’s hard to understand where such despair comes from.
For better or worse (depending on your point of view) Red Clocks illuminates how women are held captive by their bodies’ ability to reproduce. A man is never held back by the fear of being pregnant. It has never stopped a male from seeking a degree, a job, an honor, a relationship. It’s never stopped a male. It has stopped countless females. There is a lot of creativity in her words, but Red Clocks feels too uncontrolled, almost self-indulgent in its creativity. There are odd hallucinations, a side plot, and an entire book being written about a 19th century, female Artic explorer. Why? I read Zumas’s debut, The Listeners, and absolutely loved it so I soldiered on with Red Clocks, hoping an ending that would pull it all together and floor me with its power, but it didn’t happen.
I realize that there are those who could read Red Clocks and see it as a utopian return to family values, when a woman’s body is not her own, but for me, the greyness, the lopsided dialogue, and skewed perceptions led to a space I didn’t want to be. Whether they had children or not, there was not a single character in the novel who was happy with her life. A mother who thinks daily about killing herself? Another whose self-esteem is tied solely to her ability to have a child—despite being an outstanding teacher and an otherwise strong woman? It all left me sad and confused. I’m sure Zumas had a theme in mind, a goal she was moving towards, but I got lost along the way.