Dystopian “Red Clocks” fails to connect with readers

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20

Graphic by Penelope Taylor ’20


Hailed as the new “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Leni Zumas’ third dystopian novel “Red Clocks” takes place in a society where abortion is newly criminalized and adoption is restricted to married couples. The novel explores the intersecting lives of four women and the ways in which they navigate society: Ro, the high school teacher and biographer who desperately wants a child; Mattie, her student who finds herself in an unwanted pregnancy; Susan, a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage and Gin, a “mender” who helps those abandoned by the health care system and finds herself on a modern-day witch trial for doing so. 

Despite the transition occurring during the course of the novel, the book is written as though the anti-abortion and adoption laws had been passed decades ago. Zumas fails to illustrate the rupture of society and capture the true horrifying realization that would come with the illegalization of abortion. By not addressing these effects, Zumas misses an opportunity to connect readers with characters and undercuts the significance of her own worldbuilding. 

That being said, the strength of the novel lies in the simplicity of the Oregon town and the ways in which the women continue living somewhat normal lives as best as they can. When new, restrictive legislation is passed, it can mean very little to some, while for others it has devastating consequences. 

Ro and Gin’s sections are the most interesting because they provide the strongest emotions and allow the reader to access their inner workings. Out of all the women in the novel, only Ro and Gin are written with any emotional depth. While reading the book, I wondered whether Zumas made Mattie and Susan’s sections purposefully inaccessible, as these are characters that are trying to retain the structure of their lives without breaking down. However, even when they do break down, it is not very impactful. The writing holds back from delivering the emotional resonance that the novel needed. 

For example, when Mattie decides to have an abortion, or when Susan finally decides to leave her husband, the writing refuses to connect with these emotions in a fulfilling and provocative way. If anything, the strongest emotions in the novel come from the environment and the descriptions of women connecting with the earth. 

There are also moments of disjointed or excessive language that have a smothering effect on otherwise emotional scenes, especially when the novel attempts to capture both disgust and love for one’s own body. 

When Zumas succeeds, these moments beautifully question what it means to be a woman and to love your body outside of sex and men. However, when it fails, the writing loses its sense of purpose. Describing Gin’s love and desire for other female bodies works well, but choosing to describe the ghosts of vaginas from the point of view of a gynecologist is bewildering when the writing could have focused on Ro’s feelings of hope instead. Throughout the novel, I was waiting to be viscerally hit by Zumas’ description of women navigating the loss of bodily autonomy, but she ultimately maintains a distance between the characters and their emotions, which in turn disconnects the reader from the characters. 

“Red Clocks” also misses the chance to create diverse representation. Women of color, and trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people who are often targeted by reproductive and parenting legislation are not discussed in “Red Clocks.” Zumas fails to broach the topic of how this legislation and its restrictions on adoption would affect gay couples (despite briefly bringing up the difficulty of adopting for couples of color). The supposed next “Handmaid’s Tale” must go beyond white and cisgendered women if it hopes to expand the frontier for science fiction and dystopia — “Red Clocks” is not this book. 

Despite a strong premise, Zumas fails to explore the consequences of a world where abortion is illegal, or develop her characters emotionally enough to merit reading “Red Clocks.” Those looking for a novel about the consequences of a world without abortion would be better off reading Michelle Oberman’s “Her Body, Our Laws,” which details the consequences of criminalizing abortion in El Salvador and Oklahoma.