In RED CLOCKS, we follow the story of four women in a small town in Oregon as they wrestle with what it means to be a woman. There is Ro, the high school history teacher who is writing the biography of a female nineteenth-century polar explorer, while trying to conceive on her own. Susan is a stay-at-home mom in a struggling marriage. Mattie is a high-achieving student who finds herself pregnant. And Gin is a forest-dwelling herbalist who finds herself subject to a witch hunt. However, these women live in a not-too-distant future United States where recent legislation has banned abortion, in vitro fertilization is illegal, adoption is only possible for a married man and woman, and every embryo is given full rights of life, liberty, and property.
This was a hard book to put down. The world Zumas creates is a subtle dystopia in an eerily familiar political environment. And yes, the book is political, as any conversation about womanhood and rights inevitably is. Yet, the moves the narrative makes are subtle and nuanced, teasing out the nuances that make these conversations difficult and overwhelmingly necessary. The story explores motherhood, both the joy and the pain, but also challenges the idea that motherhood, or even womanhood, always includes paternity. Throughout the novel, there are few men that these women can trust, and yet these men control much of these women’s lives. Ro is haunted by the death of her brother, a drug-addict to the end, because she feels guilty she couldn’t save him. Mattie’s “boyfriend” pushes her into having sex, but otherwise demonstrates no other affection for her and cheats on her while she is pregnant. Susan’s husband demands too much from her, while contributing little, both physically in caring for the home to emotionally. Even Gin, distant from civilization altogether, mostly treats women. Each of their stories made me want to read more, but what kept me reading was a sense of familiarity. Near the end, Ro ruminates on the political environment that led to the Personhood Amendments, and how no one really expected things to get as far as they did, a startling political prophecy. The prose was also gorgeous, although the beginning and transitions between scenes and characters had me confused at times, but nothing a second-reading couldn’t fix. A strongly feminist and political read, complicated by nuanced exploration and well-crafted storytelling.