Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

In Leni Zumas’ novel “Red Clocks,” Congress has just passed the Personhood Amendment, outlawing In Vitro Fertilization and abortion in an America eerily like our own. The novel weaves together the lives of four women living in a hostile world in Newville, Oregon, a port town, amidst their own personal turmoil. A Pink Wall separates the United States from Canada, where abortions are still legal.

“Red Clocks” is a work of nearly dystopian fiction that calls to mind Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, but Zumas’ imagined world is much closer to the reality of reproductive rights in the United States than Atwood’s work. The governments of the parallel America in the novel and our own are fueled with the same moralistic, sentimental rhetoric. Instead of imagining  an entirely new social order, Zumas focuses on the lives of four women in contemporary America as they navigate changing laws and discover how the deprivation of reproductive rights both affects them as individuals and their communities.

51Hq-siMA7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Ro, a single, 42 year-old high school teacher is trying desperately to get pregnant before her own “clock” fails her and the Every Child Needs Two law comes into effect, barring her from adopting a child since she is a single woman. She is in the process of writing the biography of Eivør Mínervudottír, a nineteenth-century woman who voyaged to the North Pole to study ice. Ro, like many American women, finds herself caught up in her personal life to a degree that pulls her attention away from the crimes being committed against women on a federal level.

Susan, wife of Ro’s colleague Didier, and mother to two children, finds herself disgusted by her own shortcomings as a mother and her unhappy marriage. She sees herself through the eyes of others: a “Pampered white lady who doesn’t have a job, lives on family property—what does she do all day?”

Mattie, a teenage girl in Ro’s history class, finds herself pregnant after an awkward encounter with Ephraim, one of her classmates, in the backseat of his car. She struggles to conceal “the clump” growing in her stomach from her doting adoptive parents who feel that the Personhood Amendment signals the country “coming to its senses.” Gin Percival, also called The Mender, is a woman living in a cottage in the forest outside of Newville, where she keeps herbal remedies for various ailments, including remedies for terminating pregnancy. 

Zumas labels each chapter with the identities of each woman: Ro as “The Biographer,” Susan as “The Wife,” Mattie as “The Daughter,” and Gin as “The Mender.” The differing roles and anonymity of these titles offers a connection to the real world, where women are more than just reproductive vessels. The absence of the title “Mother” among these is curious. Instead of finding sympathy with one another and consoling each other, the women in this novel are pitted against one another in competition. Susan envies Ro’s freedom, whereas Ro imagines that Susan looks upon her with condescension for being a childless, single woman. Ro even envies Mattie for “getting pregnant at the drop of a trilby.”

In “Red Clocks,” Zumas creates a reality that seems all too similar to the present era of conservatism constraining American liberties. There is no need for Atwood’s Gilead here. Women haven’t stopped fearing for the future of their bodies, and Zumas’ novel is a reminder that the nature this future has yet to be written. 

Reviewed by Danielle Sovereign