Red Clocks by Leni Zumas is a layered, multi-perspective story following the lives of four women in the Pacific Northwest who find themselves questioning the feelings they have about motherhood as the U.S. starts implementing restrictive reproductive laws.
The characters are labeled as their occupations. First, we have Ro, known as the biographer. She is in the process of writing a biography of a lesser-known 19th century female polar explorer named Eivør Mínervudottír. Still in mourning over her brother’s death, Ro gets up every day and teaches history at the local high school. Sometimes, she starts her mornings off at a fertility specialist’s office since she is trying to get pregnant in her late thirties with the assistance of a sperm donor.
“When Congress proposed the Twenty-Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and it was sent to the states for a vote, the biographer wrote emails to her representatives. Marched in protests in Salem and Portland. Donated to Planned Parenthood. But she wasn’t all that worried. It had to be political theater, she thought, a flexing of muscle by the conservative-controlled House and Senate in league with a fetus-loving new president. Thirty-nine states voted to ratify. A three-quarters majority… She couldn’t believe the Personhood Amendment had become real with all these citizens against it.”
The Personhood Amendment was just ratified by Congress giving every fertilized egg the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property. This federal law also bans abortion in all 50 states with providers at risk of being charged with second-degree murder and abortion seekers at risk of being charged with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization is also banned as the transfer of an embryo from laboratory to uterus is considered illegal.
Another law, Every Child Needs Two, is taking effect soon where two parents with a valid marriage license are the only eligible people to adopt children. Single, unmarried people like Ro will soon be prohibited from adopting children. Her plan for motherhood has always been delayed as she was searching for her soulmate, but these laws have quickened her actions. She’s getting tests frequently to see if her body can carry a baby to term with a sperm donor. But her chances of getting pregnant are low. And now she wonders how much time she has to rush her adoption application to get a child before she’s not allowed to.
“You can’t say it was rape or incest—nobody cares how it got into you.”
Mattie, known as the daughter, is a student in Ro’s class. A stellar student, she finds out she’s pregnant. Her best friend, Yasmine, had been in the same situation right when the Personhood Amendment went into effect. The situation Yasmine was in destroys their friendship, so Mattie feels lonely as she looks for ways to get an abortion secretly, whether that means crossing the border into Canada or getting help from the mender.
“American intelligence agencies must have some nice dirt on the Canadian prime minister. Otherwise, why agree to the Pink Wall? The border control can detain any woman or girl they “reasonably” suspect of crossing into Canada for the purpose of ending a pregnancy. Seekers are returned (by police escort) to their state of residence, where the district attorney can prosecute them for attempting a termination. Healthcare providers in Canada are also barred from offering in vitro fertilization to U.S. citizens.”
The mender, or Gin, is a traditional herbalist who lives away from society in the forest where her family has been known to make concoctions that treat ailments for centuries. When the Personhood Amendment goes into effect, Gin is still helping women with their abortions like she had always done, like her family generations before her had always done as reproductive care. When Mattie walks through her door, she feels a tinge for the sense of motherhood she gave up. Soon after, she is in a courtroom on trial for administering an abortion to another woman who ends up in the hospital with serious injuries.
Then there’s Susan, the wife. She is the wife to Didier, another high school teacher who happens to be work friends with Ro. Battling the fatigue of raising two younger children, Susan is tired and feels unappreciated by Didier, who likes to come home after dinner with his work buddies without giving her a heads up. Their marriage is fraught with friction that only Susan senses as she goes through her daily housewife chores. She wonders what it would be like to abandon her marriage and her children for another man, even with the Every Child Needs Two law looming.
In the background of all these contemporary perspectives is the long-gone explorer Eivør Mínervudottír, who according to biographer Ro, goes on all-male expeditions after rejecting marriage at age 19. Male domination follows Eivør as she constantly educates the men she’s venturing into the Arctic with. Though we don’t sense any longing for children or becoming a mother from her, Eivør’s femaleness still leads to her demise in a world where her rights were always restricted.
“The girl is a mirror, repeating, folding time in half. When the mender had the same problem, she didn’t solve it how Temple told her to. Terminations were lawful then, but the mender wanted to know how it felt to grow a human, with her own blood and minerals, in her own red clock.”
From the quote above, we learn “red clocks” is a term for the uterus, the organ that carries babies up to nine months in pregnancy and sheds its lining every month for a period. The organ is the biological clock for women, always running on a schedule for the purpose of reproduction.
Mattie wants to stop the clock in order to continue her studies and to go off to college. Even though she was careful, even though her friend Yasmine was careful, pregnancy still occurred, and pregnancy in their teenage minds is shameful and destructive. On the other hand, Ro wants to get the clock fixed. She desperately wants a child, and when she learns that her star student Mattie is pregnant and needs assistance in getting an abortion, she can’t help but feel the complicated feelings. She can’t get pregnant while the teenagers who are in her face every day can easily get pregnant and not want to be pregnant, not want to have a child.
Complicated feelings come up for Gin when Mattie approaches her makeshift clinic for assistance. When abortion was legal, Gin used her red clock to give birth, but she didn’t keep the baby. Though she helps other females with their abortions, something about Mattie’s case strikes a chord with Gin. On another end of the spectrum, Susan gave birth to her first child when she was finishing up law school. The regret of not fulfilling her career goals because she had to start a family knots up inside her. Her red clock worked when she wasn’t ready, but now she’s wondering what life would’ve been like if it had not worked efficiently and she wasn’t tethered down to a husband and children.
How the characters’ lives intersect is awe-inspiring because their stories reflect the complexity of reproductive decisions. It’s not easy to have a baby, and sometimes the woman with the red clock is the only one factored into the equation. Feelings change about motherhood where we see Ro putting the pedal to the metal to beat laws that would restrict her decision on motherhood to Susan who already has kids but now feels anchored to a marriage she no longer wants.
One underlying factor throughout the narratives is the characters are all dealing with the loss of a person or the sense of family that is surfacing more as they make their decisions on bringing a baby into the mix. The mourning seems to be louder at this stage in their lives and shows how even when family is perceived as important, depending on where you stand with your family, there is still insurmountable stress as the person wanting to expand the family.
Overall, this novel is very timely as the U.S. deals with anti-abortion laws and the overturning of the history-making Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that almost hit its 50-year milestone. Regardless of the pro-choice, anti-abortion, or in-between supporters, the story parallels real life well with the attention on reproductive laws and how those changes can affect all women, like the characters in this small fishing town in Oregon where its proximity to Canada means nothing. The rhythmic flow of the story helps open up the characters’ narratives, though minor characters’ narratives sometimes get lost in the interweaving. At the center, still, is how political and personal decisions on reproduction can wreak havoc in changing times.