Contemporary Literature · Speculative

Red Clocks

This one has been on my TBR since it was published. And even after it was starting to get mixed reviews, I still wanted to read it. Feminist dystopia is one of my favorite sub-genres. And I loved (in a literary-interest way, not in an actual real-life way because OMG NO) that the premise of this “dystopia” was so unbelievably close to something that could actually happen in the US today. That “just a hair off of reality” vibe is what truly makes this genre such a scary one. Also, it must be noted that the not-so-subtle message in the cover design/color really struck my fancy.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas


Red Clocks takes place in a remote, small town setting in Oregon. It’s essentially present-day, but a very conservative government/vote has recently pushed through the Personhood Amendment, which grants rights of life, liberty and property to every embryo – with a multitude of (perhaps not fully thought-through, or perhaps completely intentional) side effects for single-parent homes, adolescent pregnancies, and more. In addition, abortion has once again been made illegal and in vitro fertilization is now banned. This story focuses on five women struggling under and around these new laws and their implications. Ro, a single high school teacher who wants more than anything to have a child. Eivør, a little-known artic explorer from the 19th century, about whom Ro is writing a biography. Susan, a wife and mother of two, unhappy in her home and in her marriage. Mattie, 15 years old, an adopted daughter to loving parents and one of Ro’s high school students, who finds herself pregnant and alone. Gin, a local herbalist, who assists with general healing and rumor is that she can help if you find yourself with an unwanted pregnancy. In this novel, all their stories and lives overlap as the reader gets a full picture of the limitations on women, and the over-involvement of government in their lives/decisions, as a result of these new laws.

From the start, I want to be honest. I was not as enamored of this book as I thought I would be after reading the description. And I can completely see where the mixed reviews came from. First, I feel like the writing was a little all over the place. It was a very choppy style that, at least for me, didn’t totally work. I respect that the author tried to give each section, each voice, something a little different. But with five perspectives, it was a lot of jumping around to deal with. Also, multiple times, the characters’ trains of thought or narrative styles turned disconnected or erratic, which I think makes sense, given their stressful situations/frames of mind, but again, it made it really tough to get into a flow with the story. On a random note, I don’t really know why Eivør’s story was included in the first place…at least not as its own POV. Hers were the choppiest sections and, clearly, had the least to do with exploring the main themes of the novel in current day. I would have preferred either one more present-day perspective instead or just four main voices. And last, the overall basis for the story. I actually loved that, in general. But there was something about the specific plots and stories that were told that, I felt, kind of fell short of fully unpacking the issues. Now granted, there is clearly way too much to unpack for a book this length to be able to do all of it. And I understand that. But I just think Zumas missed the mark with it a little. It seemed as though she tried to do too much (with so many points of view) that none of them were as fleshed out as I would have liked. Focusing in on any one of them more, though, may have meant missing one of the points she was trying to make, so I see why she wanted to include them all. Honestly, it’s just that, at least for me, the outcome didn’t quite match the ambition. Finally, I’ve seen a lot of talk about the lack of diversity in the characters, partially racial, but especially gender-based. Though I do not disagree, I also think, considering the setting (remember: a remote, small-town), it’s also not entirely unrealistic? And, since one of my complaints was that the scope was already too ambitious…I don’t think more could have been added without diluting it further and, in the end, doing no justice to any of the included perspectives.

However, despite all that, there were absolutely still things about this novel that I loved. First of all, despite the style of writing being distancing, the language itself was exactly what I wanted. Let me explain, cause that’s confusing. I cannot say how much I loved the way she talked head on, no holds barred, bluntly, from start to finish, about women’s bodies. Everything, from talk about insemination to sex to periods to pregnancy to just body parts and pieces in general, was straightforward, told with no occlusion or euphemism. It was awesome. Women’s bodies, and what they can do, should unequivocally always be talked about this openly. There is nothing gross or wrong about it. It’s biology and medical terminology. Rock on, Zumas, for doing your part to normalize that. I also was really into the individual stories themselves. I felt like every character POV (other than Eivør, you already know I was “meh” on her) that we interacted with had a very compelling story. In particular, I enjoyed reading Ro’s internal struggle with her strongly-held morals vs her personal wants in how she interacted with Mattie. In any case, perhaps my “want” to get more invested in them, since they were so gripping at base, was why I was so disappointed that they weren’t more expanded/developed. They were well chosen to give us a great wide-angle view of all the different ways, some obvious and some less so, that the new laws negatively impacted women’s lives, happiness, and well-being. And the side stories within them, like Mattie’s friend or Gin’s Lola, provided some nice extra points of view, as well. Last, I was really happy with the way the story-line(s) ended. Zumas’ choices were a great mix of luck (both good and bad) and hard reality and I greatly appreciated the authenticity in that. There were a lot of ways the plot wrap-up could have gone poorly, and I wasn’t disappointed in the way it played out.

Overall, I was really split about this book. There were parts I was really into, and other aspects that made it tough to fully fall for it. I guess, as a bottom line, the ideas Zumas presented (and the questions she asked) were fascinating, and they were explored widely, if not deeply. I think it’s incredibly important that things like this be published and read, considering the alarming precipice(s) we stand on in the US today. Talking openly about these issues, and delving into them head-on, is the only way to avoid many of the exact terrors in this novel from coming to pass. So, while this book may not be my first recommendation to anyone, I’ll say that, if it’s already on your TBR, don’t take it off.

3 thoughts on “Red Clocks

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