Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks envisions a dystopian future that could happen tomorrow: A personhood law grants citizenship rights to fetuses, outlaws abortion, and bans in-vitro fertilization. Single adults will soon be banned from adoption and intrauterine insemination (IUI) Women seeking abortions in Canada are stopped at the border’s “Pink Wall.” Like the best dystopian fiction, Red Clocks is so close to reality that it feels almost prophetic; like the best fiction, it’s highly inventive; with sharp, stark prose; strong characterizations; and an undercurrent of humor and hope.
The red clocks of the title are uteruses belonging to Zumas’ five archetypal protagonists, all living in the same town on the Oregon coast: The biographer, Ro, is a teacher in her 40s trying to get pregnant through IUI before it becomes a crime. The daughter, Mattie, is a 15-year-old math genius who finds herself pregnant and terrified. The mother, Susan, is unhappily married to a man who rarely assists in caring for their two young children. The mender, Gin, descended from a witch and a pirate, lives off the grid in a cabin, where she provides illegal abortions. These women’s stories are interleaved with dispatches from a book Ro is writing about a polar explorer named Eivør Mínervudottír, lost to history after publishing her findings under a male colleague’s name. (“Otherwise the world will never know them.”)
Red Clocks has drawn understandable comparisons to the work of Margaret Atwood, but I find the source of Zumas’ epigraph, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a more convincing parallel. That book, like this one, is concerned with the existential pain of a life’s divergent branching, the numerous “other lighthouses” that exist in the shadow of the real one. Each woman in Red Clocks moves through her life alongside the phantom of a different experience—Ro’s imagined motherhood, Susan’s disrupted law career, Gin’s memory of an abandoned child. Battles over bodily autonomy for people who are capable of getting pregnant conveniently ignore that the decision to replicate oneself isn’t a political one, but one that alters the course of a life, even when it’s the desired outcome.
In revealing the true complexity of motherhood and abortion too often obscured by a rabidly misogynistic right wing, Red Clocks does something radical. But it also recontextualizes the idea of motherhood altogether, framing it not as something achieved by a few happily partnered women who lucked out and HAVE IT ALLLLLLLL, but as something inherent in being human—Ro parents her students; Gin risks her safety to save the women around her; even Eivor’s frozen body feeds animal life after she dies mid-expedition.
“Into other bodies she went, but also other brains,” writes Zumas. “The people who read ‘On the Contours and Tendencies of Arctic Sea Ice’ in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London were changed by the explorer. The English translator of her notebooks was changed by her. Mattie, hearing her tell of the grindadráp, was changed. The biographer, of course. And if her book has any readers, Mínervudottír will persist in them.”
A punitive government that defines motherhood as something to be regulated ignores the other ways women’s lives and bodies carry meaning and influence. There are so many ways to exist in the world, and in an unequal society, even the most enthusiastically embraced pregnancy can impede these other achievements. Whatever choice you make, something is sacrificed. The other lighthouse is still out there. Amid its biological imperatives, societal pressure, and the threat of imprisonment, Red Clocks delivers a stark, clear truth about the existential quandary of being a person capable of ceding your body to the gestation of another body. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do. It’s a monstrous thing to force someone to do. And between these two extremes is where most of us live.
by Leni Zumas