This is the kind of book that speaks better for itself than any review I could possibly give it. Red Clocks by the undeniably talented Leni Zumas is told in the echo of women’s struggles over the ownership of our own bodies. It is told in the aftermath of a country which prohibits autonomy and authority over a woman’s own choices. It’s a heartrending map of all the ways in which a woman’s body is not her own, is entirely her own, is her child’s, is her partner’s, is empty, is full, is betrayed, is the betrayer.
In an America where a radical conservative president reverses Roe v. Wade, women have lost the right to seek abortions and doctors are under threat of legal action or the death penalty for conducting one. Young women who seek asylum across the “Pink Wall” to Canada are sent back in detention to await trial in America. The “Every Child Deserves Two” law limits adoption to married couples only. Though Red Clocks is an overtly political novel, it craftily demurs the straightforward question of “right or wrong” in favor of focusing on the aftermath through the voices of women.
Four women, referring only to themselves in titles or roles (The Biographer, The Mender, The Wife, The Daughter), each uniquely embody a plight of womanhood. The Biographer has spent her life pursuing her research and writing career, all the while wishing wholeheartedly to be a mother. Her own biology betrays her, but she spends the novel debating whether to continue IVF treatments or pursue adoption before the “Every Child Deserves Two” law goes into effect. Her dilemma is a battle with her own emotional and physiological instincts— why does she want a child? What is the drive, to procreate or recreate? She muses:
“Give me the chance to repeat myself. Give me a life lived again, and bigger. Give me a self to take care of, and better. Again, please, again! We’re wired, it’s said, to want repeating. To want seed and soil, egg and shell, or so it’s said.”
The Daughter, a high school student interested in joining a prestigious math academy, becomes pregnant by a very disinterested boyfriend already seeking affection from other girls. She herself is an adopted child who has spent most of her life wondering about her birth mother. Can she stand doing that to a child of her own?
The Mender, a woman of mysterious origin, lives in the outskirts of town and helps other women with their ailments and troubles. She produces elixirs from the earth, treatments long forgotten in time, that are as natural as the secrets she keeps. Falsely accused of maltreatment, she’s put on trial for assisting in illegal abortions for desperate women seeking solace.
The Wife, sunk deep in an unhappy marriage, wrestles with her debilitating sense of isolation in motherhood. Every day is a battle between the love she feels for her children and the loss she feels for her sense of self, while her marriage drags her down like a lead weight.
Red Clocks is an important novel in many ways, but its content shouldn’t overshadow the beauty of the writing. Leni Zumas writes like a poet, providing nuance without indulgence, and breathes humanity into every square inch of the page. I relate in some small way to each woman—just, as Leni gently prods, we all should. Her novels are like answering one question a thousand different ways, with each answer as satisfying as the next.
Memorable Quotes by each admirable character (emphasis, where it appears, is mine):
The Mender on the persecution of women as witches: “If a town be swarmed by bees with devil-face, and those bees do drip honey into open mouths, the body of a woman with honey tooth, bleeding thigh salt, shall be leashed to whatever stake will hold her. The bee swarm shall be gathered in a barrel and dumped upon the fire that eats her. The honey teeth do catch flame first, sparks of blue at the white before red tongue catches too, and the lips. Bees’ bodies when burning do smell of hot marrow; the odor makes onlookers vomit, yet still they look on.”
The Biographer on being alone: ” ‘Well, I worry kiddo. Don’t like the idea of you being alone.’ She could trot out the usual list (‘I’ve got friends, neighbors, colleagues, people from meditation group’), but her okayness with being by herself–ordinary, unheroic okayness–does not need to justify itself to her father. The feeling is hers. She can simply feel okay and not explain it, or apologize for it, or concoct arguments against the argument that she doesn’t truly feel content and is deluding herself in self-protection.”
The Daughter on sense of self: “She doesn’t want to skip the Math Academy. Or push it out. She doesn’t want to wonder; and she would. The kid too–Why wasn’t I kept? Was his mother too young? Too old? Too hot? Too cold? She doesn’t want him wondering, or herself wondering. Are you mine? And she doesn’t want to worry she’ll be found. Selfish. But she has a self. Why not use it?”
The Wife on the monotony of motherhood: “Herd crumbs into palm. Spray table. Wipe down table. Rinse cups and bowls. Put cups and bowls in dishwasher. Soak quinoa in bowl of water. Rinse and chop red bell peppers. Put strips in fridge. Rinse quinoa in sieve. Put clean, uncooked quinoa in fridge. Pour water from quinoa soaking into pot of ficus tree. Spray mist onto snake-like arms of Medusa’s head plant. Pull clothes out of dryer in basement. Fold clothes. Stack clothes in hamper. Leave hamper at bottom of stairs to second floor. Write laundry detergent on list inw allet. Plip, plip, plip says the kitchen tap. Nobody on this hill even likes quinoa.”
The Explorer on her life’s work: “The explorer wrote to the tutor, Harry Rattray, who still worked for the shipyard director in Aberdeen: ‘After many weeks of reflection on my difficulties with the Royal Society I have taken the painful decision to request that you publish my findings under your own name. Otherwise the world will never know them.’”