South Africa in 1976 was boiling over with racial tension and discrimination. With the system of apartheid in full swing, Black South Africans endured pass laws limiting their mobility, segregated services, shameful educational systems, and undeserved, extreme violence on a daily basis. This is the backdrop for Arushi Raina’s powerful novel When Morning Comes.
The author, Arushi Raina.
Black South Africans defied the oppression of apartheid at every turn. Perhaps the most intense resistance events occurred in Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg. The main characters of When Morning Comes are four very different young people who become entwined in turmoil as networks of students secretly plan to protest discriminatory educational policies. One of Arushi Raina’s strengths as a writer is how effortlessly she weaves South African history into an intriguing and entertaining coming-of-age narrative. The Soweto Uprising in 1976 was one of the most violent and tragic events in South Africa’s history and Raina’s historical novel teaches the reader about this turbulent history in a way that is gripping and personal.
I was excited to read this book because of my love for South Africa. As a youth, I followed apartheid resistance movements closely in the media and was always struck by the fact that in South Africa, people my age were fighting and dying for the freedoms I took for granted every day. As an adult working on my doctorate, I was able to travel to this beautiful country many times as I was researching libraries in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. During these travels, I was able to visit many sites of historical significance, including the site where the uprising took place. The time I have spent in South Africa has given me some of my fondest — and most challenging — memories.
When Morning Comes provides a vivid portrayal of this explosive era in South African history. It is an engaging narrative of friendship, loyalty, and political resistance. Well-written and descriptive, Arushi Raina creates multidimensional characters challenged to make decisions beyond their years. It should spark interest in readers to learn more about the apartheid era of South Africa’s history, as well as speak to those who recognize parallels to today’s world. Highly recommended.
Title: When Morning Comes Author: Arushi Raina Publisher: Jacana Media Pages: 232 pages Publication Date: April 1, 2018 Tags: South Africa, women writers, YA, historical fiction, friendships, coming of age, #OwnVoices My Rating: Highly recommended
This year I set out to read only books by womxn and focused on #OwnVoices books by BIPOC, TGNC, LGBTQ, and international writers.
I’m on track to read 50 titles and have really enjoyed most of them. I even read a few by men (still #OwnVoices) that I would recommend (you can read those reviews here, here, and here).
In this post, I want to share with you my favorites, by womxn, just in time for gift-giving season! All of these would be great ideas to give to your friend or family member who enjoys reading #OwnVoices.
One of the first books I read this year, Freshwater blew my expectations away and set a high bar for my reading during the rest of 2018. Complex and unique, this coming of age story is set against a backdrop of Nigerian spirituality and tradition. With strong themes of gender, sex, relationships, identity, health, violence, and more, Akwaeke Emezi shares their journey and I am here for it.
I adore this little book! I’ve read it three times already; it is my book girlfriend. It just really resonated with my own experiences in many ways and I dig Genevieve Hudson’s writing style. The book is genre-defying in that it is part history lesson, part memoir, part biography, part book review, part manifesta, and all homage to Alison Bechdel.
I didn’t write reviews of these books (yet?) but LOVED them. I am skeptical that I could write reviews that could do them justice. I was so ready for the (often very different) tones of these books. Juxtaposing them makes sense to me; I feel both – sometimes in the same day.
Gift Black Queer Hoe to readers who like poetry, readers who don’t like poetry, fans of spoken word, queer friends, your best girl friend from waaay back who is apologetically strong and takes no shit. Also consider pairing this with José Olivàrez’s Citizen Illegal, which is equally amazing.
Gift Heart Berries to friends who enjoy creative memoir, poetic writing, and deep or emotional books; those looking to hear Indigenous womxn’s voices; those who don’t mind books that make them cry.
This is a beautifully written book; Ingrid Rojas Contreras is just a fantastic storyteller. Her characters are fully and meticulously developed and I felt invested in them, their lives, and their survival. It inspired me to learn more about Colombia, its past and present, especially regarding womxn’s roles and rights. An amazing debut based on the life the author.
Gift to: Friends who enjoy historical fiction, creative memoirs, rich character and plot development, coming of age stories. Those looking for Latina/x voices and great writing will not be disappointed.
I read this book very early in the year and was excited by its brave girl lead characters. This alone is reason enough to read the book but I knew it was important to push myself past the initial awe at this story of strength and resiliency. When I did, I experienced an even deeper story of multidimensional characters navigating their lives and attempting to balance tradition with self-realization.
Despite the premise of the book, I found this one fun! One of the strengths of Heng’s writing – and there are many – is her commitment to detail. Her ability to describe this near-future world is rivaled only by her presentation of it; while she is descriptive in her storytelling, Heng also trusts her reader to put the various pieces together.
Gift to: Those who enjoy dystopian and speculative fiction and books that make you wonder what you would do in that situation; those who like family dramas, strong character development, and unique plots.
I haven’t reviewed this one (yet?) but it is an amazing resource. Accessible and pragmatic, the book explains the Black Queer Feminist (BQF) framework and provides examples of it at work.
Gift to: Your activist friends and your academic friends; your friend who runs a local non-profit org doing imperative, yet largely invisible, work for amazing, yet largely invisible, people in the community; you funder friends (with a card stuck inside the cover of your friend who runs the non-profit).
This is another one that I loved and didn’t review. Another one that I honestly got stuck trying to figure out how to do it justice. This book was not written for me and I am sure some of the nuances were lost. But it was one of the most important reads of the year for me. It deserves a second and third reading.
Gift to: Busy readers who dig powerful, witty short stories with meaning; those who enjoy really good writing; readers who like literary fiction with sharp corners.
While Naomi Klein’s book explores only one facet of the effects of Maria on Puerto Rico – disaster capitalists setting their sights on Puerto Rico in its vulnerable post-Maria state – it is an imperative issue to address. Only a brief (although necessary) introduction, the book offers a firm foundation to understanding disaster capitalism, the shock doctrine phenomenon, and how Puerto Rico was susceptible to more than just hurricane damage when Maria struck.
I hadn’t planned to read this one but when I received a copy from the publisher at a conference, I couldn’t help but race through this short but powerful work that feels like having a meaningful and candid conversation with a girlfriend.
Gift to: Queer or TGNC friends, accomplices who appreciate reading #OwnVoices books, friends who like reading memoirs, friends who want to understand more of the nuances of gender identity and non-comformity to established binary norms.
This was the biggest surprise of the year for me. I knew it was going to be good but as one who doesn’t read reviews before I pick up a book, I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected turns, the complex lead characters, and the surprising plot twists.
I wouldn’t have known about this book if it wasn’t for the author herself reaching out to me and I am so glad she did! This is a case of self-publishing that succeeds. Based on Hawaa Ayoub’s own life experiences, this book is a brave retelling of a girl’s coming of age against a backdrop of forced child marriage in Yemen.
Gift to: Friends who like creative memoirs, stories from international authors, tales of resilience and family drama; those who are passionate about gender equality and interested in understanding (or resisting) traditional gender roles; those who appreciate detailed character and setting development.
Have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?
What were your favorite reads of 2018?
This post contains affiliate links; I write what I like.
Hawaa Ayoub’s chilling debut novel centers on 14-year-old Eve who, after being taken from her home to remote Yemen under the pretense of a temporary visit, is forced into marrying a man over ten years older than her. The story is terrifying, infuriating — and that of Ayoub herself.
The author, Hawaa Ayoub
Eve, a schoolgirl in the UK, is extremely intelligent, has plans to attend university, and is focused on a bright future. Her father takes the family on what he said would be a brief visit to Yemen, the family’s country of origin, but the truth is that he intended for the family to stay. Worse yet, he forces Eve to marry a man much older than her.
The book opens with the terrifying marriage scene with Eve being dragged through the process, begging for it not to happen. From the start of the book, the reader experiences Ayoub’s talent for description and detail. From clothes, to traditions, to smells and sounds, the author’s descriptions of life in Yemen are — frighteningly at times — brought to life.
We follow Eve’s story throughout the next 15+ years. The circumstances she endures are heartbreaking and infuriating: rape, abuse from her father and in-laws, losing her right to education and autonomy. But while our heroine surrenders to her new (temporary) life, she never agrees to it or stops fighting for her freedom.
Throughout her entire marriage, Eve demands to be free. She asks to return to Britain, or at the very least to a more urban center of Yemen or to Saudi Arabia. She constantly schemes for ways to escape the situation and begs for a divorce, all to no avail.
While she is adept at sharing its horrors, Ayoub also provides an honest portrayal of the daily life of a young girl forced to marry. She describes the isolation, the boredom, the repetition of her days, and the relationships with her husband’s family. The conflict and guilt Eve feels as a young woman who enjoys sex but despises the situation she’s been forced into is described as only one who has been there can. While a bit protracted at times, I appreciated these candid reflections. Ayoub is particularly skilled at providing her readers insights into the dichotomies of Yemen: experiencing a beautiful land surrounded by strong traditions and people but all the while being held prisoner there where the traditions are particularly vicious towards women and girls.
After 19 years in Yemen, Hawaa Ayoub now lives in London and shares her story to help fight against child marriage in Yemen and throughout the world.
Rich and descriptive, When a Bulbul Sings is an important book that candidly describes one girl’s harrowing experiences being forced into marriage and her seemingly unending drive for freedom. The book is well-written and well-edited. I highly recommend it to those fighting violence against women and girls, those who enjoy reading international women writers, and those interested in creative non-fiction and memoirs.
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is a wickedly comedic story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola. Despite their differences, the sisters couldn’t be closer. And while critical of her sister’s decisions and often jealous of the attention she receives from men, Korede is still the protector of Ayoola’s secrets–no matter how deadly.
Set in Nigeria, this story is one of family and loyalty. Ayoola is beautiful, enchanting, and has a problem keeping her boyfriends alive. Korede is the responsible, self-deprecating older sister. As a nurse, she is used to taking care of others and her sister is no exception. As she continually cleans up Ayoola’s messes, Korede begins to question her loyalty to her mischievous sister.
How long can this go on? Can she keep Ayoola’s secrets forever? Should she? What is she getting out of it and would her sister do the same for her?
The author, Oyinkan Braithwaite.
This was a fast-paced story, accessible and entertaining. Braithwaite allows us to peek into life in Lagos, including interactions with police that have Korede worried. I almost felt like I was a friend of the sisters, even though they only truly trust one another.
I was immediately drawn into the fray with Braithwaite’s brisk pacing, short chapters, and darkly humorous writing style. Her subtle hints allow the reader clues into how Korede and Ayoola grew up; reminders of their lives with a violent father and detached mother.
There’s a seditious pleasure in its momentum. At a time when there are such wholesome and dull claims on fiction — on its duty to ennoble or train us in empathy — there’s a relief in encountering a novel faithful to art’s first imperative: to catch and keep our attention.
It’s not that the book isn’t deep; it does encourage reflection about family loyalty, courage, right and wrong. But it doesn’t force you into it. You could just read the book purely for entertainment and we need that right now. Somehow reading a book about a serial killer and her enabling sister and enjoying it without judgment feels subversive… and I am here for it.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. Nigerian authors continue to offer us lithe, clever, and original fiction–add Oyinkan Braithwaite to this list. Highly recommended.
Title: My Sister, the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Pages: 228 pages
Publication Date: November 20, 2018
Tags: Nigeria, fiction, women writers, debut My Rating: Highly recommended
When I picked up Washington Black, the latest novel by Esi Edugyan, I prepared myself for a challenging story about slavery, violence, and injustice. What I got was something much more layered and original. There’s a reason this book has received the accolades it has: it is a surprising and outstanding book.
The story begins with an 11-year-old slave, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, on Faith plantation on the island of Barbados. Faith is run by Erasmus Wilde who is vicious and violent. His brother, Titch, is a scientist, naturalist, and abolitionist. When Titch arrives at the plantation to work on his hot air balloon (you heard that right) that he calls a cloud-cutter, Wash is assigned as Titch’s personal servant. Over time, Wash develops a trust for Titch and a complex friendship develops between them.
But this is just the beginning. Titch and Wash leave the island abruptly but Wash is left to find his own way after Titch later disappears without a trace. The adventure that follows takes Wash to the US, the Arctic, Nova Scotia, Europe, and Morocco. He learns about the world and himself while uncovering surprising, and sometimes painful, truths along the way.
The author, Esi Edugyan.
Esi Edugyan is masterful at developing characters that are full yet flawed; even our protagonists are human and selfish, they make mistakes, hurt others, and desire understanding and forgiveness. The settings are nuanced yet striking, almost as if they are additional characters in the story. There are whole lives packed into this book but it never feels overwhelming or too much. Edugyan lovingly offers us a world of brotherhood, invention, discovery, and freedom.
The depth of Washington Black was what I enjoyed most; there are many layers to this story that the reader can peel back to discover its powerful messages. There is a robustness and bold yet subtle movement to this book that draws you in. Incorporating elements of fantasy, horror, history, and adventure, Washington Black is remarkable in its marriage of terror and beauty, weight and subtlety, heartbreak and hope.
I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy adventures, historical fiction, full character development, and multilayered plots. Or to anyone because it really has something for everyone.
In her debut novel Suicide Club, Rachel Heng reaffirms the notion of “be careful what you wish for” and challenges her readers to reflect upon the price they would pay for immortality.
The author, Rachel Heng.
We live in a world where the quest for long life is a multimillion dollar industry. In Heng’s near future setting, people live for hundreds of years. But at what cost?
In this engaging story, Lea Kirino is a successful woman with the potential to live forever. By all accounts, she has a profitable career, a loving relationship, a comfortable apartment.
They burst out laughing. Todd laughed too, right on cue. Their laughter was rich and cascading, a golden ribbon unfurling through the party, making people turn to look, people who were until then perfectly secure of their position in life but at that moment felt something was missing. (page 7)
Lea follows all of the suggested guidelines for nutrition (juicing), exercise (low impact, including no running), and avoiding stress (even too much smiling causes unwanted wrinkles).
It wasn’t often, these days, that things broke anymore. Everything was toughened, reinforced, enhanced. You really had to try to break something. (page 132)
Then one day, she sees her estranged father on the street and it changes everything. Lea begins to question being a “lifer” as she is confronted by the divergent and illegal ideas of her father and the mysterious Suicide Club.
The Suicide Club is made up of people who challenge the status quo that immortality – and the price one pays for it – is a worthwhile goal. The members are committed to exercising autonomy and control over the course of their lives: to eat what they want, live how they please, and die how (and when) they choose.
“Something has to change. In being robbed of our deaths, we are robbed of our lives.” (page 2)
Lea begins to question everything; everything she thought was true and right. Heng challenges her readers to consider issues of longevity but also family relationships, wealth and consumption, and what truly makes life worth living – and dying. For me, it brought up contemplation about the right to die with dignity and autonomy, though not specifically taken on in the book.
One of the strengths of Heng’s writing – and there are many – is her commitment to detail. Her ability to describe this world is rivaled only by her presentation of it; while she is descriptive in her storytelling, Heng also trusts her reader to put the various pieces together. She takes her time and brings the reader into Lea’s world day by day. The result is a dynamic, multidimensional setting and intriguing characters that set the stage for the readers’ reflections.
Lea felt a heaviness in her lower back, as if the weight of all their problems, all their pain, had crept into her body, wrapped itself around the base of her spine, settled there. Calcified, anchored, immovable. (page 274)
Suicide Club is a thought-provoking novel perfect for readers who like dystopian or speculative fiction that makes you think. I was both entertained and intrigued by the book; it held my interest throughout. With characters you will relate to and a story that will draw you in, Suicide Club is one of the strongest debuts of the year.
Content information (potential spoilers):
Animal cruelty pages 100-103; several descriptions and discussions of suicide; bullying and violence pages 177-181; self-harm page 98; descriptions of sickness, hospitalization, dying, and death; family estrangement and death; sex pages 278-280; murder.
I received an advance reader’s edition of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Henry Holt, Declan Taintor, and Rachel Heng. This review contains affiliate links. Please support independent booksellers!
I’ve always enjoyed dystopian and post-apocalyptic books and films but admittedly, I am no expert in these genres. I appreciate the creativity and uniqueness of these types of stories. I think it takes courage to write a book of speculative fiction; there’s a risk in letting your imagination run free and create a world for the reader that is idiosyncratic while still allowing them to see the familiar in this fictional setting.
The author, Peng Shepherd.
Peng Shepherd is one of these risk-takers.
Her debut novel, The Book of M, is set in the near-future where people’s shadows begin randomly disappearing. The phenomenon starts with one man in India but soon spreads inexplicably across the world and is soon dubbed The Forgetting.
Why The Forgetting? Because while people afflicted with it gain a new power, they pay the price by losing their memories along with their shadows. The book turns eerie quickly when we learn that as the stages of the Forgetting continue, the person who loses their shadow soon forgets who people are, how to drive, where to find food, how to speak, that fire is hot. The thought of dying by forgetting is terrifying and all too real.
The book is focused on two main characters, a couple named Max and Ory. Each chapter is centered on one of them or on one of the other characters we meet throughout the story. Shepherd is adept at these changes of voice and this method lends to the feeling of instability and fear in the world during this terrifying catastrophe. The Forgetting hits home when Max loses her shadow and, instead of waiting until the day when she loses her memory completely, she runs away. Ory sets out after her in a desperate attempt to find her and salvage any time that they may have left together.
Ory held his breath and ran east, straight into the low-hanging morning light, as if he could outrun his terror. If he could just make it far enough, the rising sun would turn into a bridge, and then he’d be in D.C. And Max would have to be there. She’d have to be (page 75).
While she travels, Max reluctantly beings to record herself on a small tape recorder Ory had given her. This is a genius tool that Shepherd employs on various levels. While it allows us to hear Max’s narration, thoughts, and feelings, it also gives us clues into her evolution during The Forgetting. As the bits and pieces come together throughout the book, they are like pieces of a puzzle fitting together just so.
There are so many things to tell you, Ory! I’m desperate to record them all before I start to forget. I want to tell you all about the others I’m with now, who they are, what they do, where we’re going. I don’t say this to hurt you, I hope you wouldn’t take it that way– but until I met them… I didn’t realize how lonely I’d been (page 188).
The Book of M is spooky and mysterious; I was never quite sure what to expect next. Shepherd is able to make her characters come distinctly alive, so that you can see yourself in them and wonder how you would feel or react in the midst of The Forgetting. As we would, some of the characters take risks and some play it safe.
On a deeper level, this is a story of humanity and what makes one “human.” It challenges us to examine embodiment and self, as well as science and medicine. Through The Book of M, we can explore our deepest memories and the shadows we leave behind, willingly or not.
Title: The Book of M: A Novel
Author: Peng Shepherd
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: June 5, 2018 My Rating: Highly Recommended
This post was originally published in June 2018.
I received an advanced reader’s edition of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, William Morrow! This review contains affiliate links. Please support independent booksellers!
Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighteris an intense story of survival and sisterhood.
And so much more.
Set in India against a backdrop of a strict caste system, arranged marriages, and harsh poverty, the two main characters of Rao’s poetic story develop an unlikely friendship that proves to be an enduring constant on which they build the strength needed to endure the violence and powerlessness they experience. This alone is reason enough to read the book but I knew it was important to push myself past the initial awe at this story of strength and resiliency. When I did, I experienced an even deeper story of multidimensional characters navigating their lives and attempting to balance tradition with self-realization.
The book begins with a story about a temple in the village of Indravalli and the old childless woman who was responsible for growing the trees whose wood was used to build it. Referring to the trees as her children, the old woman is complimented on her good fortune to have so many sons. At this, with “her eyes on fire,” the woman quickly gives the correction that the trees are not her sons but her daughters. This story and its subtle emphasis on fire, wholeness, and the girl-child sets the tone for the book and these recurring themes.
As the book continues, the reader witnesses Rao’s distinct talent for detailed descriptions of the surroundings of her main characters, Poornima and Savitha. She offers us a vibrant, albeit stark, picture of life in Indravalli and the ever-present gender inequities women face. Both characters experience trauma that forces them apart and drastically changes the trajectories of their lives.
There was a door, she remembered, a hidden one. Where all her treasures lay. And it remained closed, through the tea stall and the concrete room and the drugs, through the men and the men and the men. And it was through this door that the words found their way.
In her book, as in her BookPage “Behind the Book” article, Rao challenges her reader to reflect upon what a girl is worth.
A brown girl. A poor girl. A disabled girl. An uneducated girl. An ugly girl.
A girl in Khayelitsha, South Africa. A girl in Aleppo, Syria. A girl in Indravalli, India.
What is she worth, anyway? And why should we care?
Throughout Girls Burn Brighter, we must keep these questions in our minds. We must answer them honestly, then interrogate and re-interrogate those answers as well as our biases to get to the truth. The truth may be uncomfortable and unexpected. But to go through this process by reading this book and others like it, is one place to begin to explore the worth of girls. To see their light, their wisdom, their energy, their complexities, their fire, their spirit burning brighter.
Jasmin Darznik’s latest book is a novel based on the life and work of Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Darznik’s first book, entitled The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, was a New York Times bestseller. With her current work, Darznik tries her hand at recreating the life of Iran’s most provocative poet and filmmaker, and succeeds brilliantly.
Forugh Farrokhzad has been called “Iran’s Sylvia Plath” and lived a fascinating and heartbreaking life. Born in Tehran in 1935, Farrokhzad created rebellious poetry and films that challenged embedded societal norms. She lived and died fighting for the freedom of women to live independently, to create fearlessly, and to love fully. Farrokhzad’s poetry was intimate and honest at a time when being a “poetess” was not considered a serious profession for a woman. Against the backdrop of a domineering father, an unhappy arranged marriage, and a violent and stifling culture, Farrokhzad pushed Iran’s fundamentalist patriarchy to the limit. And she paid for it.
Author Jasmin Darznik was born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up in California.
To live an authentic and meaningful life, Farrokhzad was forced to make numerous sacrifices. While some may condemn Farrokhzad for her recklessness and certain decisions she made, readers of this book may not be so quick to judge. Darznik leads her reader into the fear and limitations that came with daily life as an Iranian woman; the violence as well as the lack of agency, freedom, and education is infuriating to read about. Darznik has done her homework and offers a detailed portrait of Farrokhzad while conceding an Iran of contrasting beauty and oppression. Presenting readers with the honesty of Farrokhzad’s poetry and the reality of her circumstances, while challenging us with her tortured decisions, Darznik brilliantly evokes sympathy and understanding for Farrokhzad. We follow Farrokhzad throughout her captivities and glimpse the determination and sacrifices necessary for her to live the free and independent life she longed for.
Darznik has a poetic writing style herself; with Song of a Captive Bird, she provides readers accessible entry into Iranian literature and poetry, and specifically into the work of Forugh Farrokhzad. One needn’t be a lover of poetry to appreciate this thoughtful and passionate story.
What do a polar explorer, a teenage girl, an aging teacher and writer, an unfulfilled wife and mother, and an eccentric healer have in common? A lot, surprisingly enough. Their intertwining experiences are calculatingly uncovered in Red Clocks, the third book by Leni Zumas.
I say “calculatingly” because the uncovering of the relationships felt just as deliberate as the development of the individual characters themselves. On both counts, I was puzzled at first, trying to figure out what these seemingly disparate characters have to do with one another and what story Zumas was trying to tell through them. But it didn’t take long before all the pieces fell into place to make a mosaic of women’s lives that was poignant and honest. Zumas is unafraid to shine a light on the imperfections and complexities of women’s inner voices and relationships.
Zumas masterfully switches voices among the four main characters, who are referred to in chapter headings as The Daughter, The Biographer, The Wife, and The Mender. I appreciated the statement Zumas makes by referring to them by these labels, as so often women are relegated to simple characterizations that do not represent the depth and fullness of our lives.
So adept is Zumas at identifying the unique voices of her characters, that the reader is taken inside their thoughts, is privy to their secrets, and bears witness to the repetitive and often destructive tapes that most women have playing incessantly inside their heads. The characters really come to life and more than once or twice reminded me of my own inner critic, especially The Biographer.
The Biographer is a single woman trying desperately to get pregnant before a new law goes into place that will outlaw single people becoming parents. A teacher by day, she is also writing a biography of an Arctic explorer whose story was almost lost to history. The imagery of ice and glacial bergs ran concurrently through The Biographer’s story, as if to indicate frozen qualities within her: her infertility, her solitude, and her methods of dealing with both. The Biographer copes with hardships with a dry wit that is at once deferential and yet serrated with disappointed observance of the ways of the unjust world in which she lives. (In my head I picture her as Susie Myerson, played by the amazing Alex Borstein, who is the friend-manager of Midge Maisel in the hilarious series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Which really doesn’t matter to this review but I had to share anyway.)
The Biographer comes to the aid of The Daughter, Mattie, who also suffers at the hands of the new Conservative Christian laws being passed. This time it is the strict Personhood Amendment that impugns women’s sexual and reproductive decisions and dictates the arrest of those who seek to have an abortion. It’s an unlikely pairing that works; Zumas seems to enjoy challenging her readers with scenarios that may seem unlikely but that are, at times, terrifyingly closer than we may like to think.
One of the biggest criticisms I have of Red Clocks was its whiteness, and by this I mean the broadest definition of whiteness-as-norm. The only character of color that is brought to our attention is Mattie’s former best friend, Yasmine. In an interview with Deirdre Sugiuchi in Electric Lit, Zumas discussed the intentionality of telling Yasmine’s story through The Daughter: “It was important to me to frame Mattie’s racial identity, more than Yasmine’s, as the site of conflict and unease. In this novel and beyond, I want my work to face the trouble of whiteness: how it’s been constructed, how its power is maintained, how we could imagine dismantling that power.” In this way, Zumas is writing and challenging what she knows: whiteness. While I appreciate this, I would’ve loved more development of this storyline or more interrogation of racial aspects in the Red Clocks future, because you know that as bad as white women would have it, women of color would have it worse. While fairly compared to A Handmaid’s Tale, Red Clocks would have helped the genre evolve by exploring themes of misogyny and white supremacy even more head-on and in-depth.
One of the real strengths of the book is the way in which Zumas captures the repetition and monotony of women’s everyday lives that exists concurrently with dynamic challenges and life-changing decisions. I felt the urgency each character faced throughout the book. By presenting characters of various ages centered on the main themes of reproduction and agency, Zumas encourages the reader to reflect upon how women’s priorities and decisions change over time and circumstance, how women regularly make intentional and informed choices about their bodies, and how the lack of agency has devastating effects on their lives. Fears of being forgotten or never discovered, of not loving or being loved, of being misunderstood and mistreated, of being found out, as well as the fear of regret are all real concerns and Zumas is masterful at weaving the characters, their multiple dimensions and their individual yet interlocking voices into a story that is captivating and thought-provoking.
In the end, I found Red Clocks a call to action. “They started talking about this thing called the Personhood Amendment, which for years has been a fringe idea, a farce.” This is how these things can happen, right? We think that the threat will never actualize and we become complacent. We stop being shocked, we don’t take the threats seriously, we stop fighting, and we stop supporting one another. Red Clocks may be a work of fiction but its messages hit much too close to home to ignore. While each of us is stronger than we think, we are even stronger together. Red Clocks gives us a glimpse into what the near future could be like if we don’t stand together and resist the forces that attempt to disenfranchise and diminish us.