Book/Author: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Reviewer: Jeriann 

Age/Genre: Adult Dystopian Fiction

Preferred Reading Environment: I thought this was a great bathtub read – this book talks a lot about women’s bodies, so being naked while reading it felt appropriate. 

Reading Accoutrements: Your Favorite Chocolate. And maybe some tea/water with a tincture in it if you’re wanting to address specific health or wellness issues.

Content Notes: Sexism, Authoritarianism, Infertility, Abortion, Death

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you might have already guessed from the genre and notes above that I found this book on a list. Electric Literature just has a way of making me want to read things, and they haven’t disappointed me yet! 

Going in, I knew that Red Clocks takes place in a United States where abortion and in vitro fertilization have been made illegal. I also knew that the story followed five women with very different life experiences. I’ve been excited to read this book since I first read about it. I bought it almost immediately, and made myself read other books first in order to “earn” this one, in the hopes I would get through some slower reads a bit faster.

As stated above, Red Clocks centers around 5 women with very different stories. Each chapter focuses on one of these women, titled with the title that most prominently describes them, with one exception that I’ll get into a little bit more below.

The Explorer, Eivør Mínervudottír, was a pack ice researcher and explorer born in 1841. She was responsible for important research that opened up the ability for ships to travel through dangerous, icy waters. As a woman, she had to lie about her gender to be allowed on expeditions. When she tried to get published, she was scorned and told a woman could not have written her work. So she had it published under an acquaintance’s name. Eivør’s story is told in short vignettes between chapters, as part of a book being written by….

The Biographer, Roberta Stephens, who goes by Ro. We meet the biographer in a health clinic where she’s receiving fertility treatments. The clinic is over-busy and under-staffed and pretty much refuses to provide quality medical care. Ro has been struggling to conceive for a while, has several sperm donors’ samples in storage, and is losing hope. She is on adoption lists, but as a single woman in medical debt and living on a teacher’s salary, she is not an ideal candidate. To make matters worse, a new law is about to go into effect, dubbed, “Every Child Needs Two,” making it illegal for single people to adopt. Not having a lot of luck with her uncommunicative doctors, she decides to seek help from…

The Mender, Gin Percival. The mender lives in the woods near town and does not socialize well with others. She prefers the company of animals, like her cat and goats, to that of human beings. She provides herbal remedies to people in town, mainly women, and largely centering around reproductive issues. She treats genital warts, terminates pregnancies, and is frequently referred to as “the witch” by the people in town. She sees the biographer to help her with her fertility issues, diagnosing her with PCOS, which her regular doctor missed, and also treats…

The Daughter, Mattie “Matilda” Quarles. Mattie finds herself knocked up by a scumbag highschool boy who ditches her for the next flavor of the week before she finds out she’s pregnant. Mattie doesn’t want to tell her parents, because she’s pretty confident in her decision to abort, even though she knows they will disapprove and use the fact that she herself is adopted as an argument. Mattie seeks an abortion in a country where abortion is illegal and it’s hard to know what is safe, while remembering her best friend Yasmine going through the same thing a few years prior. Mattie also happens to babysit Bex and John, children of….

The Wife, Susan, whose manchild husband, Dittier, works with Ro at the school. Susan and Ro used to be close friends, but have drifted apart as Susan’s life revolves around her kids and Ro becomes more discouraged by her lack of success conceiving. Susan spends most of her time lamenting her lack of autonomy as a mother. She craves the 8 hours each week when a nanny watches her kids for her and yearns to confront her husband about her desire for couples’ therapy, which he has continually shot down. The wife doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, but she knows she shouldn’t be daydreaming about driving over the side of the cliff road.

The book prominently refers to these women by their titles, mostly only showing their names in other people’s thoughts about them. These titles are their roles in relation to other people, and also largely the center of their personal conflicts: Ro (the Biographer) feels like her life lacks purpose not only because she can’t have a child, but also because she can’t finish her book showcasing a woman she feels deserves more acclaim. Gin Percival (the Mender) lives her life as a mender because she feels deeply that is a meaningful purpose and it appeals to her, but it causes a lot of problems in regards to how she interacts with society. One of the Daughter, Mattie’s, main challenges in the book is dealing with her pregnancy, mostly alone, because she doesn’t want her parents to see her as a disappointment. Susan, the Wife’s, problems stem from her unhappiness in her marriage. Eivør is the character most commonly referred to by her name, and I think that is because most of the writing about her is supposed to come from Ro, so it makes sense for the style to be different. Throughout the book, the way the characters interact in their assigned roles shifts, some more than others.

Red Clocks follows these five women through their perils and triumphs, showing the dangers of a world where reproductive choices are not left in the hands of patients and their doctors. I had a great time reading this book and would recommend it to everyone. The characters are dynamic, being greatly flawed humans with consistent personalities. At one point, I felt simultaneously frustrated beyond belief and validated about my annoyance as I watched Ro deal with Dittier’s pushing her for personal details after she tells him that she lost a loved one to heroin, so could he please stop making overdose jokes. I found the writing engaging, particularly enjoying the way we learn about the ways different side characters are connected to each of our main protagonists. Seeing this small town from four different angles gives an overall view of the book’s society, which feels fully fleshed out for reasons far beyond the fact that it’s a world similar to our own.

There’s not too much more I can explore without major spoilers, but I’m definitely considering writing a more in-depth essay about this book in the future.There are a lot of specific issues in Red Clocks – from society’s expectations of women, to ideas around autonomy, to how we let people get away with obnoxious and even harmful habits in order to avoid conflict. Way too much to talk about here, but let us know in the comments if that’s something you’d be interested in!

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