REVIEW: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

In brief: In an alternate future America, IVF and abortion are banned with embryos having the right to life. Four women in a small town grapple with this law in different ways.

The good: Great premise.

The not-so-good: The characters always felt too far removed from me.

Why I chose it: Sounded different – I like alternate/dystopian futures that are plausible.

Year: 2018

Pages: 354

Publisher: Borough Press (Harper Collins)

Setting: Oregon, USA

Rating: 6 out of 10

Even though I don’t read much sci-fi or dystopian fiction, I love the feminist dystopian literature that is slowly but surely on the rise. Last year, I really enjoyed The Power by Naomi Alderman and I’m looking forward to reading The Fortress by S.A. Jones soon. I saw a lot of hype around Red Clocks this summer and it seemed like my kind of thing. Picture a future America where IVF and abortion are banned. Embryos and foetuses carry the same rights as an adult human. Soon, there will be a law that has every adopted child must have two parents. It sounds scarily backward but in this day and age, also creepily plausible.

This is the atmosphere in which Red Clocks is set. Set in a small coastal town in Oregon, everything feels damp and repressive. It almost feels a little Gothic, particularly for Susan, living in her family’s huge holiday home that is draughty and falling down. Susan is wife to Didier and mother to two small children. To others, she has it all. But her marriage is failing and she’s dispirited with the life of cleaning and being a mother. She just wants a little time to herself. Ro is Didier’s colleague who desperately wants a child and artificial insemination isn’t working. It’s killing her finances and her soul. Mattie is Ro’s student, who is pregnant but doesn’t want the child. Can she make it through the ‘pink wall’ for an abortion after her attempt to get help from Gin fails? Gin has been arrested after the ‘mender’ (think natural medicine healer) has been accused of performing an abortion – on the school principal’s wife. These women all have their own problems, mainly brought on because of the change to this law.

But if you’ve read the cover, you will note that is only four women. Who is the fifth? Ro is writing a biography of a female polar explorer, and the text of this appears in short spurts before many chapters. I personally don’t count this as a fifth character because it didn’t work for me. I can see that women were just as severely restricted in the 1800s as they are in this future America but it didn’t add to the story for me. I can already see that these new laws are a backward step, I don’t need the parallel. I tended to skim over them.

It’s interesting that each character’s chapter is labelled as ‘the biographer/daughter/wife/mender’. It really creates a sense of distance between the reader and the character, and I felt as though they were not Susan or Ro or whoever but a figurehead. Because of this, I didn’t really connect with any of them. It was like I was seeing them through layers of ice and that all feelings were distorted. There is a lot of emotion in this novel as each woman battles with her place in the world but it felt like it was coming from a long, long way away. It was too far for me to really feel for any of the characters. To me, they were just that – characters. They didn’t come alive for me. I kept reading because I was hoping for some closing of the gap, some powerful explosion that would bring everyone together. There were taut moments, but the story didn’t break through the cold ice for me. It was a really interesting premise and well written, but I felt too far away to care.

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