Red Clocks by Leni Zumas is a rare pleasure that I long for with every book I read, but rarely experience. The pleasure and beauty of the book—its story, the writing, how it burrows to the heart of something dark and true— pinned me to the couch deep into the night. Despite the hour, I could not put it down.
Published as science fiction in 2018, it reads nearly like journalism today. Set in a small Oregon town, it’s the story of five women caught in the stranglehold of a post-Roe America. That’s the situation. But the story is about freedom, deeply personal freedom and its deeply personal cost. Although we know the women’s names, Zumas communicates the Every Woman nature of this tale by referring to the main characters by their role in society:
The Biographer (Ro), a single high school teacher in her 40s trying to have a baby through IVF.
The Wife (Susan), a mother of two in an unsatisfying marriage.
The Daughter (Mattie), a promising high school student who sees her future drain away when she finds herself pregnant and is required to carry the pregnancy to term.
The Mender (Gin Percival), a gifted forest-dwelling herbalist who is arrested and put on trial.
The Explorer (Eivor), a little-known 19th century female polar researcher whose groundbreaking work she could only publish by asking a colleague to submit her work under his name and who died by freezing to death under a pane of ice.
Each woman is trapped and each has to hack their way to some kind of personal freedom, freedom only earned when they refuse to compromise their integrity, a struggle that, of course, extracts its great price. For each woman this is a narrow, dangerous, and ultimately solo journey. And it’s a solo journey for the reader as well. Zumas writes so personally that it’s as if the sixth person in this story is named The Reader.
Every tiny choice Zumas makes ties the knot of the story tighter. There seems to be no extraneous detail. Early in the book, the biographer has been invited to dinner at the home of the wife and her family. Bex, one of the children, wants to show the biographer her room. The biographer notices among the plethora of stuffed animals, a mummified squirrel. Here’s a tiny interaction that signals what is to come, but the signal is so slight that I only consciously noticed it on a second reading:
The biographer peers. “Is that a real squirrel?”
“Yeah, but it died. Which is, like, when…” Bex sighs, twists her hands together, and looks up at the biographer. “What is death?”
These types of hard questions dog the story for the next 300 pages.
The mender is the town “witch” who lives in the woods and helps women with all kinds of maladies dismissed by the “real doctors.” She is not only a mender, but a keeper of the women’s secrets. A constant topic of gossip in the town, anything bad that happens is always superstitiously traced back to her. We are first introduced to Temple Percival, her aunt, the one who taught her about herbs and potions and healing, after the mender goes the the Acme store in town for supplies. While in there she hears snarls and whispers, townspeople blaming her for Dolores Fivey winding up in the hospital. We hear the thoughts of the mender as she walks home through the woods:
Lola didn’t almost die. It would have been in the newspaper in the library.
Ignore them, says Temple from the freezer. People will believe any old crap.
Whoa! From the freezer?
Then the mender remembers a story her Aunt Temple told her when she was a young girl:
Salem, Massachusetts, 1692: a “witch cake” was baked with rye flour and urine from girls said to have been stricken by spells. This fragrant cake was fed to a dog. When the dog ate it, the witch would suffer—so went the folk wisdom—and her yelps of agony would incriminate her.
“How did they get the girls’ urine?” the young mender wanted to know.
“Unimportant,” said Temple, The important thing is that people will believe any old crap. Never forget that, okay? Any. Old. Crap.
The mender misses her aunt every day.
So. Okay! The dead aunt talks to her niece from the freezer. We also learn that the mender makes potions using fingernail clippings and snips of hair from frozen Temple’s body. Don’t let it be lost on you that the aunt’s name is Temple. Truly, every word in this book matters, every description a vivid part of the novel’s setting. Like this description of the mender when she is at a loss for words:
The mender’s tongue was an oily toe.
As you can easily imagine the mender is arrested and brought to trial, the proceedings bringing together the stories of the four women.
When the trial finally ends, the foreman addresses the court and we hear his voice from the mender’s perspective as well as her thoughts as the verdict is read:
“Have you reached.”
Stop shaking, You’re a Percival—.
“We find the defendant—”
—descended from a pirate.
I cried as I read this. Couldn’t help it. The characters—by virtue of the unsparing, risky storytelling—had wormed their way into my bones. I cared so much.
Near the end of the book, we discover that Eivor dies. It’s not a surprise—we know it intuitively from the outset. But the way Zumas tells us is part of the weave of the story and she, again, ties the knot of the stories of these five women tighter. Eivor is lost out on the Arctic ice. Her fellow researchers, all male, are back on the ship in an equally dangerous situation. In the end, they all die. This is from Eivor’s perspective:
If she didn’t move her blood would stop. Persist, Eivor told herself. She stood and staggered on.
That last sentence could be the theme of the entire novel, as so many sentences in this book could be, Zumas’ prose is so tight, her theses so intertwined.
I cried again at the end of the book, its last perfect line.
Red Clocks was published five years ago, before the fall of Roe vs. Wade. Perhaps it is an even more powerful book now, when the “science fiction” prospect of women not being trusted to make decisions about their own bodies is now the law of the land. The questions Zumas forces us to ask and answer are not in some distant hypothetical future. They are now. And you’ll have to trust me when I say this is an oddly hopeful book. I don’t know how Zumas pulled that off with such grim, vivid material except to say she is a fearless master storyteller.
You can buy or order Red Clocks at your local bookstore. If you don’t have a local bookstore, you can order it online at: Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/p/books/red-clocks-leni-zumas/113153?ean=9780316434782 or at Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/red-clocks-leni-zumas/1126358608?ean=9780316434782
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >