Doren Damico
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

What if abortion were once again illegal in the U.S?

The premise of Red Clocks is terrifyingly simple: Fertility and child-rearing rights have been co-opted by the United States government. Abortion is once again illegal, in vitro fertilization is banned, the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo, and soon, only heterosexual couples will be able to adopt. Leni Zumas shares the stories of five very different women: The Wife, The Biographer, The Daughter, The Mender, and The Polar Explorer. Each short chapter is told from a different viewpoint character, and when The Mender is put on trial, their stories become intimately woven together

The Wife…

Before having kids, she envisioned motherhood as a jubilant merging. She never thought she would long to spend time away from them. (p 254)

The Biographer…

In a place that is neither mind nor heart, or both at once, she wants an ashy line down the center of a round belly; she wants nausea… But why does she want them, really?  (p 91)

 The Daughter…

Last year one of the seniors threw herself down the gym stairs, but even after she broke a rib she was still pregnant, and Ro/Miss said in class she hoped they understood who was to blame for this rib: the monsters in Congress who passed the Personhood Amendment and the walking lobotomies on the Supreme Court who reversed Roe v. Wade. (p 51)     

The Mender…                    

When the body is slow to do something, or galloping too fast toward death, people want wands waved. Broth? That’s it? The mender teaches them to boil meat bones for days. To simmer seed and stem and dried wrack, strain it, drink it. Womb tea makes a cruel stench. (p 47)

The Polar Explorer…

In 1841, on the Faroe Islands, in a turf-roofed cottage, in a bed that smelled of whale fat, of a mother who had delivered nine children and buried four, the polar explorer Eivør Mínervudottír was born. (p 3)

At the author reading for Red Clocks, Zumas related how she had finished writing it before the 2016 presidential election, and originally conceived it as a near future tale. But after the election of Trump, she revised the story and its setting to a novel about today. “These laws come from the mouths of Mike Pence and Paul Ryan,” she said in explanation, “and Red Clocks is my resistance literature.” 

The book does highlight important issues regarding women’s fertility rights. We are reminded that making abortion illegal would return women to the dangerous dark ages of “homemade abortions” and damaged uteri. Women today may not face jail sentences like the characters who get caught seeking an abortion across Zumas’ “Pink Wall” along the Canadian border. But in many parts of the U.S., safe and legal abortion remains a very real challenge.

Although the unique legislative conditions in Red Clocks create drama, it is a story of ordinary and relevant fears, from the exhaustion of dealing with young kids or managing fertility treatments and a job, to the hopes and challenges in adoption and teenage pregnancy. Naomi Alderman, in her New York Times review, suggests that Red Clocks is “…a shade too contemporary.” But that is exactly what Zumas wants us to understand, and what Ron Charles in his Washington Post review expresses so well: “The ordinariness of the world that Zumas imagines is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Red Clocks.”  

Zumas self-describes as a language writer who struggles with plot. She is highly sensitive to the acoustic quality of prose, and explained that an important part of her writing process includes “…listening for what the next word should be, the number of syllables, the tactile sense of a word, the beat to end a sentence.”

This attention to language is everywhere evident, from the distinct voices of the various characters, to the variety of literary structures used to tell her tale. She excels in expressing intimate truths that manifest through free and direct speech. She gives precious paper space to poetry and lists that further narrative in surprising ways. And despite her disclaimers, she develops dramatic tension with a plot line that propels the reader toward revelatory resolutions. A swift read with beauty and depth for many returns, Red Clocks is most effectively, a story of the interdependence of women, families, and communities. 

Red Clocks Triptych Summary

In Essence: Leni Zumas’ “resistance literature” is an honest and insightful look at women’s relationships to motherhood.

A Lesson: Zumas teaches us to look deeply into the many faces of the pro-choice movement.

For Writers: Meaning and beauty are created by the sounds and the silences.

Learn more about Leni Zumas and her writing.

Read the Triptych Introduction for more information about “feminist” speculative fiction, and essential reading lists.

Read the next review in my “feminist” triptych: Margaret Atwood’s Historical Allegory: The Handmaid’s Tale

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Doren Damico

Doren is a salsa dancing philosopher poet, slinky sculptor, and fan of science fiction.

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