Red Clocks is mostly alarming in how easily it could become a reality.
Its characters live in a United States with a new president, surprisingly elected, who has passed the Personhood Amendment. Abortions are illegal and prosecutable.
Alternatives and escape are prevented with further legislation. Representing Canada’s solidarity with the US, the Pink Wall upholds the law by keeping American women from seeking abortions across the border. Under the new Every Child Needs Two law, adoptions are only allowed in two-parent homes. “Unnatural” methods for getting pregnant, such as in-vitro fertilization, are also outlawed.
In short, Red Clocks imagines a country in which women have no personal agency over their own bodies. Reproductive rights are nonexistent. And it’s a slippery slope to women having limited to no rights in general.
“She knew—it was her job as a teacher of history to know—how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight, against the will of most of the people.”
It’s a terrifying concept, shown through the eyes of four different women and their varying experiences. We follow an infertile biographer, desperate to have a baby and prevented from adopting. A wife in an unhappy marriage, with moods toward motherhood that bounce between indifferent and hostile. There’s a teen on the brink of great things, unexpectedly pregnant. Finally, we meet the mender, a woman who provides natural remedies and finds herself in the middle of the modern-day witch-hunt.
The biographer, the wife, the daughter, and the mender. All of them different, all of them left with no choices in this new environment that skews anti-female.
Symbolism is rife.
Women’s reproductive systems tick like red clocks on this dystopia, or ticking time bombs, depending on the situation. It’s a countdown to bliss or a countdown to doom, one over which the woman has little control.
Surprisingly, Zumas claims to have begun writing the book in 2010, well before the current presidency. Not surprisingly, revisions took on an urgency after 2016.
The book cleverly shows us not only what could happen, but how alarmingly easy it would be to get there. Large groups of people are one law away from oppression.
Allies, though, are also a highlight of this book. When one character sees past her own heartbreak to help another, it’s an epiphany.
Come for the alarmism. Stay for the characters. These are interesting, messy, complex, imperfect women who embody the messy and complex world they inhabit.