Like Margaret Atwood in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Portland author Leni Zumas’ new book describes a future both frightening and all too possible.
by Leni Zumas
Little, Brown, 256 pp., $26
What’s remarkable about Leni Zumas’ new novel “Red Clocks” isn’t that the dystopia it presents is wildly imaginative but that it’s so close to what’s happening right now. It’s the day after tomorrow, not the distant future:
“The United States Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception,” Zumas writes. “Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.”
If that sounds far-fetched, it’s not. Personhood Amendments have made it to the ballot or through state legislatures in several states. Republicans attempted to add language allowing a fetus to qualify for federal college savings plans in the recently passed tax bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan favors adding a Personhood Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thirty-eight states have fetal-homicide laws; 23 of those laws apply to conception, fertilization, gestation or post-fertilization.
The author of “Red Clocks” will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Roberta Stephens is one of five main characters in “Red Clocks,” a high-school teacher and a single woman caught in the wake of the new laws. She “[w]oke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for,” and found that everything had changed.
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“She couldn’t believe the Personhood Amendment had become real with all these citizens so against it,” Zumas writes. “Which was stupid. She knew — it was her job as a teacher of history to know — how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight, against the will of the people.”
“Red Clocks” cuts back and forth between Roberta, called “The Biographer” because she’s working on a book about a 19th-century polar explorer; Roberta’s favorite student Mattie (“The Daughter”), who’s facing an unwanted pregnancy; Gin Percival (“The Mender”), a self-taught herbalist who lives in the woods above their Oregon coastal town and does what doctors cannot; Susan (“The Wife”), a frustrated mother trapped in an unhappy marriage; and the explorer, Eivor Minervudottir, who comes alive through poetic entries that reflect what’s happening to the others.
It’s a busy novel, and a brainy one, built more on character than plot. Zumas, who teaches at Portland State University, has a lovely way with a sentence and a sharp understanding of how women can be jealous and supportive of each other in equal measure. The coastal setting is vividly rendered, as is the everyday reality of doctor appointments, dirty dishes and broken dreams.
When “The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985, Margaret Atwood insisted it was not about some unimaginable distant future: almost everything in it had happened or been planned or discussed. In that pre-Internet era, she carried newspaper articles around to prove it. Zumas doesn’t need to worry about that.