The Biographer. The Daughter. The Wife. The Mender. The Explorer. Leni Zumas refers to her protagonists by these descriptors, invoking the reductive distance from which women are viewed in a patriarchal society: “That’s someone’s daughter.” They are also Ro, Mattie, Susan, Gin and Eivør—the dynamic women of Zumas’ magnificent second novel, Red Clocks.
Ro, a high school teacher, works tirelessly on her biography of the 19th-century trailblazing Faroese explorer Eivør Mínervudottír, who shucked societal norms for decades, ultimately freezing to death at age 42 on a polar expedition. Also 42, Ro dreams of having a child, but under the new Personhood Amendment and the “Every Child Needs Two” act, in vitro fertilization is banned, and adoption is reserved for married couples.
Mattie, 15, is Ro’s gifted student. She is pregnant and doesn’t want to be. Susan, a mother of two, is so unhappy with her nuclear family that she contemplates driving off a cliff. Gin, an introverted healer, becomes the subject of a witch-hunt after being accused of conspiring to perform an abortion.
Each woman explores her sense of self and what it means to be selfish or selfless about her desires and ambitions. Why can Eivør watch the gruesome slaughter of pilot whales but not lambs? Why can Mattie conceive an unwanted baby when Ro can’t get pregnant? Zumas plays with extremes, exposing the inner hypocrite in everyone, including the reader.
With spare prose that sets a tone as chilly and bleak as the Oregon coastal setting, Zumas doesn’t shy away from the grotesque while presenting a tale that’s haunting, thought provoking and painfully timely.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Leni Zumas for Red Clocks.