In the not-so-distant future, abortion and IVF have been constitutionally outlawed in all 50 states. Canada closes its checkpoints to abortion-seekers, sealing the border with a symbolic "pink wall" and returning suspicious young women to the United States for prosecution. With the passage of the Every Child Needs Two Act, single parents are summarily banned from the adoption process. And illegal "Termination Centers," run out of back alleyways and abandoned, dilapidated houses, warp the defiant choice to end a pregnancy into a potentially lethal decision.
Such is the through-the-looking-glass world of Leni Zumas's harrowing Red Clocks — a novel so uncannily close to our own surreal political dystopia you might just find yourself reaching to call your Congressperson with the turn of every page.
Zumas's narrative moves between a chorus of women quietly grappling with their terrifying new reality — a single 40-something craving a baby of her own, an exhausted mother trapped in a loveless marriage, a freshly-pregnant teenager facing her fate alone, and the subversive, off-the-grid healer who binds them all together. Set in a small Northwestern town somewhere outside Portland, the book vibrates with the nerve-jangling claustrophobia of a seismic cultural shift — a spectral panic as diffuse and ever-present as the Oregon fog. But for Zumas, the complete erosion of women's rights doesn't need Atwood's genre-defining crimson cloaks or starched caps — just the enthusiastic signatures of a few charismatic, white-haired senators. It's The Handmaid's Tale, stripped of all its fantasy, for Mike Pence's America.
Red Clocks finds its emotional center in a profoundly relatable feeling. Ro, a single, middle-aged teacher still fighting to become a mother, watches her government careen towards ratifying a Personhood Amendment without ever truly believing it could be possible (until, of course, it's too late). "When Congress passed the Twenty-Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and it was sent to the states for a vote, [she] wrote emails to her representatives. Marched in protests in Salem and Portland. Donated to Planned Parenthood. But she wasn't all that worried. It had to be political theater, a flexing of muscle by the conservative-controlled House and Senate in league with a fetus-loving new President."
Red Clocks unfolds in the amendment's nightmarish aftershocks, with no bold revolutionary solutions to save its female characters from the brutal restrictions on their bodies. Instead, Zumas gives us an all-too-familiar portrait of women trying to rebuild their lives, somehow, in the chasm of lingering disbelief.
"I went through my whole life assuming Roe Vs. Wade was pretty untouchable," Zumas explained to Refinery29. "But when I started doing research into reproductive rights in the U.S., I discovered that Mike Pence and Paul Ryan have both supported fetal personhood amendments. It's all so hard to follow in the chaos, though. The Republican tax bill, for example, had language saying that an unborn child could be the beneficiary of a college savings account, which sets up a precedent for reversing Roe Vs. Wade."
Zumas's story isn't just a chilling exaggeration of the insidious pro-life climate that's saturated American politics for decades, however. "I have a son — he just turned 5 — and he was conceived by IVF," Zumas said. "During the process, I started noticing that there was so much anger from people about the morality of IVF — that it's unnatural, that you shouldn't be allowed to do it, that it's better to choose adoption." Thinking about the dangerous mythology tangling the "right" kinds of mothering to womanhood led Zumas to consider all the ways it impacts our power to earn an income, to develop a creative voice, and, above all, to push back against abuse. "Our bodies and selves are in danger if we don't please someone else," she explained. "It can be a survival method to smile, to acquiesce, to do that extra task, but, clearly, we still pay a price."
Experiencing IVF also made her more aware of the many women who can't access reproductive technologies — how the possibility of motherhood is sometimes a question of privilege. "That pushed me to consider what would happen if no one could have IVF — if evangelical zealots got their way. If you couldn't get pregnant naturally, you couldn't get pregnant at all." The body, Red Clocks proves, is a cruelly efficient kind of prison — an object of constant suspicion and betrayal, plagued by unwanted pregnancies, silent ultrasounds, deadly infections from botched abortions.
In the end, Zumas's deftly woven story leaves us in awe of the power of quiet defiance — the exhausting, morally opaque work of choosing autonomy, even in a world completely unmade. A book as lyrical as it is devastatingly honest, Red Clocks fast-forwards to the time after you've marched and called and voted, showing us all the complexities and pains of life in the aftermath. As Ro tells her students, in a moment of mingled hope and resignation, "by walking is how you make the road."