RED CLOCKS by Leni Zumas


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The lives of five women in a small Oregon town are affected by the outlawing of abortion and an imminent ban on single parenthood.

A billboard on the highway to Canada reads, "WON’T STOP ONE, / WON’T START ONE. / CANADA UPHOLDS U.S. LAW!" After the Personhood Amendment grants rights to embryos, the U.S.–Canadian border becomes a “Pink Wall.” Women crossing to seek pregnancy terminations or in vitro fertilizations are returned to the U.S. for prosecution. Following the current fashion for braided narratives, this story is told from five perspectives. Ro, whose chapters are labeled “The Biographer,” is a single high school teacher who's trying desperately to get pregnant before single parenthood is outlawed. Mattie, “The Daughter,” is an academically gifted teenager whose best friend is already in juvenile jail for attempting a home abortion. Now she too is pregnant, and desperate. Susan, “The Wife,” is married to another teacher at the high school, miserable with him and with domestic life in general. She and the Biographer are competitive frenemies who misunderstand and resent each other even as they regularly socialize. Gin, “The Mender,” is a natural healer who lives in the woods, an underground provider of herbal abortions, in more danger from the new laws than she realizes. Finally, Eivør Minervudottir is a (fictional) 19th-century explorer of the North Pole, the subject of the Biographer’s work. Her sections are brief avant-garde flashes that include recipes for cooking puffin and pilot whale and crossed-out lines revealing the Biographer’s process. The other four characters are entangled in complicated, trickily unfolding ways, as is usual in this type of fractured narrative. Zumas (The Listener, 2012, etc.) is a lyrical polymath of a writer: she loves wordplay and foreign terms, she has an ear for dialogue, and she knows an impressive amount about herbal healing, Arctic exploration, and the part of the U.S. her story is set in, its “dark hills dense with hemlock, fir, and spruce,” its “fog-smoked evergreen mountains, thousand-foot cliffs plunging straight down to the sea.”

A good story energized by a timely premise but perhaps a bit heavy on the literary effects.

Pub Date: Jan. 16th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-316-43481-2
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2017


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