How many of us made it through the chaotic past year without occasionally wishing to wake up in an alternative universe? Novelists have the tools to rearrange our reality, testing the limits of things we take for granted — politics, technology, gender, nature — and twisting them into new shapes. Utopian fiction has largely fallen by the wayside these days, trampled by dystopian visions of futures devastated by technology, climate, consumerism, religion, totalitarianism, or all of the above. Some of the dystopias currently on offer seem not so much prescient as disturbingly present. Prime example: The TV adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which debuted just months after Donald Trump entered the White House, propelled Margaret Atwood’s feminist fable about a near-future American theocracy into the bestseller lists 32 years after its original publication.
Leni Zumas’ second novel, “Red Clocks,” unfurls in a parallel America just a wrinkle in time away from our own. This fictional tapestry weaves together five female characters scrabbling with the expectations and constrictions of a country where reproductive rights are severely curtailed. What could’ve been didactic instead becomes an enchanting ramble through the myths and mundanities of womanhood.
At the center of “Red Clocks” is Roberta “Ro” Stephens, referred to throughout as “The Biographer.” A 42-year-old high school history teacher in an Oregon fishing town, Ro nurses two obsessions: researching her biography of little-known female 19th century polar adventurer Eivør Minervudottir (“The Explorer”) and having a baby. The first goal is elusive, since Minervudottir has been so thoroughly erased from history that there are few details for Ro to build a book around. The latter aspiration looks increasingly unfeasible, because Ro is a single woman and Congress has recently passed Every Child Needs Two, a law banning unmarried people from adopting children, as well as the Personhood Amendment, which grants rights to embryos while outlawing abortion and IVF.
So absorbed was Ro in her own daily life that she barely noticed society shifting around her. “Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn't voted for,” writes Zumas. “This man thought women who miscarried should pay for funerals for the fetal tissue and thought a lab technician who accidentally dropped an embryo during in vitro transfer was guilty of manslaughter.” Ro’s last chance to conceive now lies in completing a fertility treatment before the new laws kick in.
Along the way she turns to Gin (“The Mender”), known to the locals as “a forest weirdo.” Descendant of a long line of female outcasts whispered to be witches, Gin concocts natural potions to help women with problems they’d prefer to keep secret: scars caused by spousal abuse, unwanted pregnancies (as in the case of Ro’s teenage student Mattie, a.k.a. “The Daughter”), or fertility problems. “It’s got to be mostly hokum …,” Ro concedes. “But what if it works? Thousands of years in the making, fine-tuned by women in the dark creases of history, helping each other.”
Minervudottir is one of those figures lost to history. Because the archives offer only tiny glimpses of her life, Ro is forced to fill in gaping holes with her imagination. The sections about Minervudottir are riddled with crossed out sentences and elliptical fragments; it’s as if we are catching the biographer in the act of dreaming a ghost back into existence.
Zumas’ characters constantly circle the question of what makes a woman’s life successful. Does Minervudottir’s importance lie in her refusal to be a mother in an era when that seemed like women’s only option? Is it her daring journey to the North Pole with an all-male expedition that deserves attention, or her groundbreaking research on ice’s freezing patterns, which ultimately enables increased shipping and drilling in the Arctic? Is it possible for Minervudottir to be both “a cog in a land snatching, resource sucking … imperialist machine” and a heroine worthy of rescuing from oblivion?
Closer to home, Ro stews with envy over the ease with which Susan Korsmos — “The Wife” of one of her teaching colleagues — got pregnant, even as she belittles Susan’s decision to give up her law career to be a stay-at-home mom. Susan is a familiar fictional archetype — a beleaguered housewife who regularly fantasizes about driving her family’s car through the guardrails of a cliffside road. Yet sharp prose makes her disappointment feel solid, like a layer of fat congealing.
“Red Clocks” drops us into Susan’s shoes with a schedule of tiny, mind-numbing tasks that bog her down: "Wipe down table. Rinse cups and bowls. Place cups and bowls in the dishwasher. … Open bill for plumber, who did not even fix the dripping tap.”
Ro also has a penchant for making lists, like a brainier, snarkier Bridget Jones. One of them enumerates all the reasons she shouldn’t be trying to have a baby including (#6) “you should’ve thought of this earlier” and (#9) "how was that child going to feel when she finds out her father is an anonymous masturbator?” Having spent her life despising women ruled by their biology, here she is joining the club, a slave to the red clock.
Zumas injects some overt political commentary into the storyline of Matti, a teenager who wants to terminate her pregnancy, but mostly the dystopian elements remain tucked in the background. “Red Clocks” ends up feeling like an enjoyable puzzle that is fundamentally unsolvable, some of its pieces playfully misplaced along the way. The fractured narrative leaves us to connect the dots between these disparate characters, all of whom make bleak compromises because they — like so many women throughout history — have so few options available to them.
Press is the author of the upcoming book “Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television” and the former book editor of The Times.