Book Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks – Leni Zumas (Little, Brown, and Co, 2018)

Red Clocks is a book about women. The story loops through the lives of 5 women, 4 of whom live in the same Oregon fishing town and find themselves more connected than they might have initially thought. The 5th woman is a long-dead polar explorer, an unusual role for a woman in the 19th century. Ro, an English teacher hoping for a successful pregnancy via in-vitro fertilization, also hopes to write a book about this unknown female explorer. Susan is a stay-at-home mom who once planned to be a lawyer and now finds herself lost in an unhappy marriage and the overwhelming needs of young children. Mattie, a smart teenage girl, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. And Gin is an elusive woman living on the edges of society, providing alternative cures to those in need.

Pregnancy and the role of motherhood is obviously a central theme to the story and to each of these women’s lives. The story is set in an alternate version of the USA where abortion has been outlawed and women seeking to end their pregnancies are arrested, including those who attempt to pass through the “Pink Wall” and find abortions in Canada. At the same time, a new ruling called “Every Child Needs Two” prevents single mothers from adopting children. The thing is, of course, that though Red Clocks was published in 2018, I read it in 2022 where none of this reads like fiction at all.

The vilification of women in desperate circumstances, the danger of backroom abortions, the tragedy of those wanting children but prevented from adoption – all of these are events I’ve been reading about in current news. I don’t know what reading this book in 2018 might have felt like but in 2022 it almost felt like Zumas lacked creativity.

It’s hard to divorce a novel like this from current world circumstances. Where Zumas might have intended her book as a warning bell, I was left with a feeling of, “What now? What does this book say about women and motherhood now?” In the end, the stories of these 4 women tie together in a way that the reader probably expected. There are some “unexpected” connections that I spotted earlier on and some satisfaction in the ways these women’s stories work out and justice prevails. At the same time, I appreciated that Zumas doesn’t tie up all her loose ends too neatly. In the end, the law is the same. These women have come out of it ok but what about other, more marginalized women? And, unfortunately, that is the real life question many women in America are currently facing.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas”

  1. It does sound as if you would have reacted differently to this book had you read it several years ago. The author might also have written it differently had it been written this year.

    1. Yes, definitely. It was obviously written in response to events in the US, post Trump, and feels like it was intended to shock the reader a bit. But since this is pretty close to what is happening in the US, it’s not really shocking anymore. It’s hard to divorce a book like this from current events.

  2. I remember when this book came out and thinking it really appealed me. I’m disappointed I never got to it then, and as you point out, reading it now just seems like a depressing reminder of the reality out southern female neighbors face. I wonder if Margaret Atwood has read it? haha

    1. Yeah, reading it in 2018 would have been more like, Wow this is crazy and dystopian! Now I just read it thinking, Whelp, she nailed it. I wonder if Atwood has? 110% guarantee Zumas has read Atwood!

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