Red Clocks (Zumas)

Red Clocks
Leni Zumas, 2018
Little, Brown and Co.
368 pp.

Five women. One question. What is a woman for?

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo.

In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

  • Ro is a single high-school teacher, trying to have a baby on her own while also writing a biography of Eivor, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer.
  • Susan is a frustrated mother of two trapped in a crumbling marriage.
  • Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro's best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn.
  • Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling herbalist, or "mender," who brings all their fates together when she's arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

Red Clocks is at once a riveting drama, whose mysteries unfold with magnetic energy, and a shattering novel of ideas. In the vein of Margaret Atwood and Eileen Myles, Leni Zumas fearlessly explores the contours of female experience, evoking The Handmaid's Tale for a new millennium.

This is a story of resilience, transformation, and hope in tumultuous-even frightening-times. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Education—B.A., Brown University; M.F.A., University of Massachusetts
Currently—lives in Portland, Oregon

Leni Zumas is the author of three books of fiction: Red Clocks (2018), The Listeners (2012), and Farewell Navigator: Stories (2008). Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Columbia: A Journal of Art and Literature, Quarterly West, Keyhole, Salt Hill, Gigantic, Open City, and New York Tyrant.

A graduate of Brown University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst MFA Program, Zumas is an associate professor of English at Portland State University. She has also taught at Columbia University, Hunter College, Eugene Lang College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville, and the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/4/2018.)

Book Reviews
Zumas has a perfectly tuned ear for the way measures to restrict women's lives and enforce social conformity are couched in the moralizing sentimentalism of children's imagined needs…Zumas is a skillful writer, expertly keeping each of her characters in balanced motion, never allowing one to dominate the rest. Her cunning device of not revealing the name of each character in the sections she narrates grants us a multidimensional perspective on all four women, highlighting their roles in one another's stories. It's a beautiful metaphor for the interdependence of women's lives—for the way that…the laws that imprison or criminalize one of us narrow the options for all of us.
Naomi Alderman - New York Times Book Review

[P]owerful…. [With her]…consistently engaging tone [Zumas] illustrates the extent to which the self-image of modern women is shaped by marriage, career, or motherhood. Dark humor further … [makes] this a thoroughly affecting and memorable political parable.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) [P]oetic and political…[with] characters who are strong and determined.… Zuma's work is not nearly as dystopic or futuristic [as The Handmaid's Tale], only serving to make it that much more believable. Highly recommended. —Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis
Library Journal

(Starred review) Shattering.… With its strong point of view … Zumas has raised [her novel] … to the level of literature, which readers will find deeply moving.… [B]eautifully realized…compulsively readable…. The result is powerful and timely.

Following the current fashion for braided narratives, this story is told from five perspectives. [C]haracters are entangled in complicated …ways, as is usual in this type of fractured narrative.… A good story energized by a timely premise but perhaps a bit heavy on the literary effects.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The novel begins with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: "For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too." How do you see this quote pertaining to Red Clocks?

2. Five women are at the novel's center: the Biographer, the Wife, the Daughter, the Mender, and the Polar Explorer. Which character do you identify with most, and why?

3. The characters' threads intertwine at the level of plot, but also at the level of form, as the narrative perspective keeps shifting among five different points of view. How does this "braided" structure affect your experience of the novel? What does it suggest about the boundaries between self and other, individual and collective, history and present moment?

4. Ro, Mattie, and Gin are all significantly impacted by new federal restrictions on abortion, fertility treatments, and adoption. How do you respond to their fictional experiences in light of current realities in American politics?

5. During the courtroom trial, the mender reflects:

This predicament is not new. The mender is one of many. They aren’t allowed to burn her, at least, though they can send her to a room for ninety months. Officials of the Spanish Inquisition roasted them alive. If the witch was lactating, her breasts exploded when the fire grew high (p. 257).

Do you think Gin Percival is a witch? Why or why not?

6. Absent loved ones are recurring shadows in Red Clocks. Ro’s mother and brother, Gin’s mother and aunt, Mattie’s best friend Yasmine—all are gone, yet they leave significant traces. What roles do grief and loss play in the novel?

7. In the school music room, after a painful conversation with Mattie, Ro rips a poster of pirates ("THEY CAN HIT THE HIGH C’S!") off the wall (p. 303). Pirates, shipwrecks, and nautical adventure are juxtaposed against domestic/personal crisis throughout the novel. What do you make of this contrast? And how do whales—from Moby-Dick to the stranded bodies Mattie mourns on the beach—figure in?

8. How does Red Clocks define motherhood?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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