Red Clocks is written by writer Leni Zumas who is from the United States and teaches creative writing. I’ll dive right in and admit that it took me way too long to get through this book. I just couldn’t get into it and I was wondering if it was because it was written in a very literary way or that it was just not that interesting. I think it was a bit of both (but do keep on reading this review because you want to find out why it was still a good book!). This book got my attention because of the following words on the cover:
What is a woman for?”
Yes, please answer this question! I knew immediately it was going to be feminist of nature. What happens a lot with feminism is that there is a focus on reproductive rights, with a heavy emphasis on the right to have an abortion. This is one of the most popular feminist issues out there, with good reason of course! Equal reproductive rights for everyone is important. And a lot of feminist novels thus also concentrate on this topic. This novel follows that trend.
Red Clocks is set in a dystopian speculated future. In this future, women do not have any reproductive rights. Just like in many feminist dystopian novels, abortion is illegal and the providers of abortion are also punishable by law (think of The Handmaid’s Tale). There is the Personhood Amendment that gives “the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception”. This means that having an abortion equates murder (much like anti-choice people claim). However, Zumas takes it further than just abortion rights. Now that embryos have rights, and considering they cannot give consent, in vitro fertilization is also illegal. Then there is also the law “Every Child Needs Two”, which states that all adopted children need two parents. Basically, all of the choices women can make about reproduction are restricted in Zumas’ dystopian world.
The restrictions create different problems, which are presented to us through the point of view of four main characters: the biographer, the mender, the wife and the daughter. There is also a fifth storyline, that of a polar explorer whose life is outlined by the biographer (I will get back to this later). The biographer is single and desperately trying to get pregnant through insemination, the only way she is allowed to get pregnant. The wife is trapped in her marriage, is sick of her kids and is looking for a way out of it all. The daughter has an unwanted pregnancy and is trying to figure out a way to get rid of it. And then there is the mender who provides illegal abortions but also helps women become more fertile. She is a total outcast of society and frankly has the saddest storyline.
At the beginning of the story, it is unclear what these women have to do with each other, but once Zumas starts using their names and they pop up in each other’s chapters, it becomes more and more evident how the lives of these women are deeply connected. This construction makes the novel very interesting but also hard to get into. Once, however, you get to the parts where the women get increasingly connected you fly through the pages. You could potentially finish the book and start rereading right after. I think this would give you a completely new perspective on the story. So I would say, definitely worth it to get through the first bit.
Anyway, if you know me, you know that I have a thing for speculative fiction. So much so that I wrote my entire MA thesis on it. I wrote it on the following topic: “An analysis of the relation between reproduction and gender roles in speculative fiction (1970s-1980s). You could say that I’m somewhat of an expert on this topic then. I thought that Red Clocks set itself apart by taking on board more than just abortion laws. This made the book way more realistic in speculating what the world would look like if reproductive rights were taken away. I do think that there could have been a way to be more inclusive in writing this book. For example, the experience of people of colour was missing. That was the least Zumas could have incorporated. What happens to trans people due to these changes in the law? What does it mean for same-sex relationships trying to have kids?
All in all, it was somewhat typical to write a feminist novel and focus on reproductive rights. It was also lacking more depth. Zumas could have gone so much further (this is why I found it somewhat uninteresting, but that is only because I’m knee-deep into the topic). However, I’m glad that there was a focus on more than just abortion. The storyline of the wife emphasis the privileges she has, but could have been more explicit in that. And what I truly didn’t understand was the parts about the polar explorer. Maybe if I would read this book again and study it more carefully, I would see the function of it, but it just seemed like an unnecessary addition.
I would say that if you like feminist novels on reproductive rights, it’s definitely a book I would recommend. However, my favourite book with this topic is still Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. It is way more inclusive and Piercy creates an entire world, whereas comparatively, Zumas stays on the surface.