Red Clocks is a thought-provoking and complicated novel that raises questions on life in the United States if Roe vs. Wade is overturned. For many, this is a strong issue politically and socially. Leni Zumas is clever in navigating several common areas of discussion on this hot topic, seemingly drawing from The Handmaid’s Tale and the Salem witch trials. The reader follows the lives of five different women in a small town in Oregon. Each woman is in a different stage of life, career, social and marital status, and has a different opinion on the new way of life for women in The United States.
Ro, “The Biographer”, is an unmarried high school teacher who is struggling to get pregnant and publish a biography of Evior, “The Explorer”, an unknown and unrecognized female explorer of the north pole. Mattie, “The Daughter”, is one of Ro’s high school students. She is an adopted fifteen-year old with loving and supportive parents and dreams of attending a prestigious college for math, but finds herself pregnant. Ro’s friend Susan, “The Wife”, has two beautiful children, but stuck in a dull and loveless marriage. Gin, the “Mender”, who lives as a recluse in the woods near town, provides natural elixirs and treatments to many women in the area, including Ro, Mattie, and Susan, for various things, such as pregnancy (both trying to be and trying not to be), anxiety, sleeplessness, and much more.
Red Clocks explores a world where embryos have the same rights and protections as a person already born. The penalties for performing, receiving, or aiding an abortion are severe. Even border patrol in Canada supports the new U.S. law and will arrest and deport an abortion-seeker back to the U.S. to face penalty. Mattie finds this out the hard way when she attempts to cross the border into Canada for an abortion, but customs agents send her back. In her despair, Mattie recalls an old friend who had to use an illegal abortion clinic, despite it’s reputation for painful and unsanitary procedures. Mattie continues to explore her options for abortion and finds other avenues to reach her goal.
Ro cannot understand how Mattie could go through with this. She has been trying for years to get pregnant. She has visited Gin for herbal remedies and advice, as well as fertility doctors for artificial insemination, but without any luck. After learning of Mattie’s condition, Ro fantasizes of raising Mattie’s child as her own. It seems cruel to her that she could want something so badly and someone else could toss that very thing away as garbage. Ro is desperate to communicate this to Mattie when a new law is put into effect stating that every adopted child must go to a family with two parents. If she could only adopt Mattie’s child before that law is effective, then her life would be complete. Right?
Meanwhile, Susan seems to have it all. The nice house in a nice neighborhood. A husband and two healthy children. It’s the life that many dream of, but Susan feels just as unhappy and incomplete as Ro and Mattie. Just like Mattie, Susan is ready to throw away what she has as she contemplates cheating on her husband.
In Mattie’s desperation to terminate and Ro’s desire to become pregnant, they seek the herbal treatments that Gin can provide. Gin, a recluse living in the woods, is arrested and put on trial for providing this aid to women in the community. It is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in that she is truly being tried for being unmarried, self-sustaining, and different.
Zumas’ novel takes a unique perspective on the five lives she weaves together. To start, each chapter follows one of the characters, alternating throughout the novel, and are titled with their identifying characteristic instead of their name. The biographer, the explorer, the daughter, the mender, the wife. This drives home the point that women have less individual identity and rights over their own bodies. Law makers have now determined that women cannot be single parents, make decisions for themselves in terms of pregnancy, and what a family should look like. Women have become regulated and grouped like cattle are in the dairy and meat industry.
Red Clocks is all to close to being a reality and readers can feel the suffering, desperation, and unfair treatment of each character because of a Supreme Court ruling overturned and a new law passed. Perhaps it is a hint that there is too much power in lawmakers in enforcing their ideals on their citizens.