In the not-too-distant future, American women and girls are allowed a quota of 100 spoken words per day, after which each syllable triggers electrocution via wrist band.
Narrator Dr. Jean McClellan, wife and mother of four, is a cognitive linguist at the top of her field—or she was, until the government was hijacked by fundamentalists led by Reverend Carl, architect of the patriarchal Pure Movement and close adviser to the president. Under Reverend Carl’s direction, women are no longer allowed to hold jobs or bank accounts, study biology or physics, or, most punishingly, to speak more than 100 words a day, read, or write. When the president’s influential older brother is in an accident and damages his Wernicke’s area—the part of the brain that controls language—Jean is temporarily called out of forced retirement (and silence) to resume work on a cure. Along for the ride is Lorenzo, Jean’s smoldering Italian colleague—and erstwhile lover. In flashbacks, Jackie, Jean’s radical grad school roommate, warns her about the rising tide of fundamentalism and condemns her unwillingness to engage. There are welcome glimmers of insight in the narrative, such as when one black character reminds Jean of the importance of intersectional feminism: “Look, I don’t mean to be unkind, but you white gals, all you’re worried about is, well, all you’re worried about is you white gals.” Like Jean, first-time novelist Dalcher has a background in linguistics, and the story sometimes gets bogged down in technical jargon, including multiple explanations of the function of an MRI. The ending of the novel, while surprising, is rushed, unearned, and the least convincing part of a story that continually challenges the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The oppression of women is an ever relevant topic. Dalcher’s premise is tantalizing, but the execution of her thought experiment—what happens when women’s voices are taken, in the most literal sense?— quickly devolves into the stuff of workaday thrillers.