Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks is the book you need to read this year. Set in the near future, we find ourselves in an American where abortion laws have not only been repealed, but women are prosecuted as murderers for seeking abortions, in vitro is banned and adoption is limited to two parent families. The pink wall bars women from seeking help in Canada, as Canadian border officials, nervous of losing ground with the country’s biggest trading partner, mercilessly enforce the law by returning women to the States for prosecution. It is, in other words, an altogether too relevant read.
Most places that I looked described it as a book about reproductive rights. And from the setup I just described you can see why this is an easy shorthand for the meat of the story. Except it’s really not that. The giveaway is the intertextual weaving of Eivor, a lost-to-history 19th century female polar explorer. One of our four overlapping narrators (the wife, the daughter, the mender and the biographer), the biographer, is writing Eivor into history by imagining her story aboard multiple polar expeditions, and her failed attempts to have her contributions to science recognized by the male dominated Royal Society. We know almost nothing about Eivor’s desire – or lack of a desire – for babies, because it’s not the point. The point is her ability to determine her contributions, to wield agency over her legacy, to be recognized for the work she has created. Which, sure, is part of the scope of reproductive rights – my ability to control my body and its (potential) creations – but it’s bigger than that because, as the novel argues, women are bigger than their ability to bear (or not) babies. It’s as much about what decisions I can make, how I make them, and whether these decisions are respected. The most obvious way of showcasing this theme is through reproductive rights, but the idea appears in dozens of different ways and spaces throughout the text.
If that premise doesn’t immediately have you on the library waiting list, I’d add that it is beautifully told. Fresh and imaginative writing that isn’t showy or brash. The four protagonists have distinct voices and narrative modes that appropriately align with their characters in a seamless weaving of form and content. I can imagine some readers might be (initially at least) put off by the postmodern twitchy shift of perspective, particularly as you orient yourself to the near-future world in the first chapters. It also takes several chapters to establish who the characters are on their own, and then how they relate to one another. I accepted this formal play as a mirror of the isolation too many women experience in their encounters with their bodies and their bodies making (or not) babies (i.e. a friend and I were talking about what parents did to find out information before the internet, and we speculated (and nostalgically fantasized) they had other parents to talk to who didn’t judge with the same harshness that internet parents do). But it could just be an annoying formal thing you’ll have to get past – and it only take 30 or 40 pages before you figure out where you are and who you’re reading.
I’ll add that when you get to the scene (and you will get there, because you. will. read. this. novel.) of the biographer trying to decide how to respond to the revelation of the daughter you need to know that I sobbed. Like wet angry tears at the difficulty of her choice and the bravery of her response. Which probably a) suggests I have some feelings about reproductive rights and experiences and b) that these characters are fully and fabulously realized.
Okay. Enough already. Stop reading me and go read this one. And thanks to J., of book club, for putting this one on my radar.