Red Clocks is an alarmingly prescient novel, made doubly unnerving by the clamp down on abortion across large swathes of the US following the Supreme Court ruling.
Leni Zumas imagines an America where abortion is illegal, punishable by imprisonment. Travel across the border to seek treatment in Canada is also prohibited. Restrictions on other reproductive rights are about to be introduced through the ‘Personhood Ammendment” In a bid “to restore dignity, strength, and prosperity to American families” , IVF will be outlawed as will adoption by single parents.
The consequences of these rules is seen through four women in a small Oregon town. .
Ro, a single high-school teacher, desperately wants her IVF treatment to work before the ban comes into force. Her star pupil Mattie dreams of securing a place at a prestigious maths college but discovers she is pregnant. Termination is, she feels, her only option but this is now classed as conspiracy to commit murder, and Mattie already knows what happened when her best friend tried to self-abort.
We also meet a frustrated mother of two whose marriage is falling apart. And in the woods outside the town lives a wise woman who offers homeopathic help to women in trouble.
The connection between these four is not immediately apparent, nor are their identities made clear until some way into the narrative. They’re introduced purely with labels connected to their roles so we have the Mender, the Wife, the Biographer and the Daughter. As the story progresses, we discover their names and histories and how they feel about parenthood.
The biographer used to sneer at talk of biological deadlines, believing the topic of baby craziness to be crap for lifestyle magazines. Women who worried about ticking clocks were the same women who traded salmon-loaf recipes and asked their husbands to clean the gutters. She was not and never would be one of them.
Red Clocks shows the challenges facing these women in a society which is steadily denying them agency over their own bodies. They just want to get on with their lives but know that the choices they make will bring public censure, hostility and punishment.
The novel has a lot of potential but never really lived up to its initial promise. Partly because It was hard to engage with the women featured and to see them as real people. Gin, (the Mender) for example seemed to have come straight out of the central casting box labelled “creepy, oddball forest woman.” Once I’d met them via their labels, it was hard to see them any other way, certainly not as living, breathing individuals.
My second problem was that the world of the novel was only partially realised. I was missing context to help me explain why these draconian measures were being introduced — and why now. Beyond some brief memories of women’s marches, there was no mention of opposition or legal challenges.
Instead, we’re just told that this is the way things are now — and that it will get worse. Such information is dropped into the text in a very matter of fact style so we’re told for example that:
they closed the women’s health clinics that couldn’t afford mandated renovations. They prohibited second-trimester abortions. They required women to wait ten days before the procedure and to complete a lengthy oline tutorial on fetal pain thresholds …
Maybe this pared down unemotional tone is meant to be chilling because of its starkness. If so, it didn’t work for me.
Red Clocks should have been a disturbing, electrifying novel — I’m sure it would have been if Margaret Attwood had got her hands on it — but it didn’t have the edge I was expecting.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: Footnotes
After gaining an MFA in Creative Writing, Leni Zumas went on to teach writing at a number of American universities. Red Clocks, published in 2018, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and won the Oregon Book Award for Fiction in 2019.
She currently lives in Oregon and teaches in the creative writing program at Portland State University.