Sunny's bookshelf
Sunny's bookshelf photo by Judy Solomon

Online book reviews since 2011, the very best in reviewing – connecting good readers with equally good writers

Red Clocks

Sign up to receive our latest reviews by email


Leni Zumas designed Red Clocks as a classical romance, much like Miquel del Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen. In those prototypes, a set of stylized characters descends into an imaginary, increasingly chaotic world. They emerge personally unchanged, but their intrepid journeys reveal insights about the state of the real world in which their readers live. Such is the case of the women who populate Red Clocks, a futuristic novel that takes place just after the United States Congress has ratified a Personhood Amendment. This new decree makes all abortion illegal, condemns any woman pursuing an abortion or any abortion provider as a murderer, bans in vitro insemination, and ultimately abolishes adoption by anyone other than a married husband and wife.

Zumas’ stylized characters have names, but she mostly refers to them as standardized types: the Biographer (also known as the Teacher), the Explorer, the Daughter, the Wife, the Mender. The Biographer, who teaches at an Oregon oceanside high school, is writing a biography of a nineteenth-century Arctic explorer. The Biographer desperately wants to bring her book to fruition, just as she desperately hopes to conceive a child before her biological clock stops ticking and before the Personhood Amendment is fully implemented. One of her students is the Daughter, very bright and very pregnant. One of her colleagues is married to the Wife, whose marriage is failing and whose children are making her life miserable. The Teacher and the Wife miscommunicate about motherhood throughout Red Clocks.

The Mender is the novel’s catalyst, a holistic healer who specializes in women’s reproductive health. In the midst of trying to help others, she is jailed for providing improper medication to the wife of the high school principal. In truth, the Mender was prescribing salves and balms to heal the aftereffects of spousal abuse, but the principal makes the case that the Mender was prescribing anti-abortion medications. His accusation lands the Mender in jail, where she can no longer offer her services to other Red Clocks women. How they react, and how her trial ensues, lies at the heart of Red Clocks.

This novel raises a number of important issues about women and reproduction, about acts of malice and of kindness, about quiet lives of desperation. It’s a thoughtful book, one well worth reading. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it, however, because I found Zumas’ artistic presentation at odds with her motifs. In an effort to convey the incoherence of the Red Clocks political milieu, she uses a broken mode to tell her stories. Brief chapters, each featuring one of the five protagonists, bounce staccato-like from situation to situation. Especially troubling, and truncated, are the excerpts from the Biographer’s book about the Explorer. I understand that the explorer’s icy existence is meant to replicate the cold reality of a post-Personhood Amendment world, but I personally found the clips more annoying than helpful.

The best way to read Red Clocks, I think, is to embrace its romance design, not to expect the protagonists to evolve. The world in which they live is best seen as a laboratory designed to test potential societal upheaval. Like its population, that world does not evolve either. Rather, it exists to raise questions in the minds of Sweeney’s readers, perhaps to terrify those readers into imagining a post-Roe v. Wade society. As a romance, in the classical sense of the word, and as a political statement, Red Clocks is very successful. As an emotive novel, however, I found it surprisingly sterile. – Ann Ronald

Also available by Leni Zumas: The Listeners; Farewell Navigator, Stories.


Add your thoughts and comments...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share this Review

Related Reviews

Facing The Mountain

Facing The Mountain

    Daniel James Brown’s Facing the Mountain, A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, is the rich telling of the plight faced

Read More »
The Honey Jar

The Honey Jar

The Honey Jar, An Armenian’s Escape to Freedom, is Joan Schoettler’s captivating tale of a young boy’s 1920, escape from his war-torn home in Armenia.

Read More »

About the Reviewer

Sign up for reviews by email

You’ll get email updates from Bookin’ with Sunny when we add a new review or blog post, and we never share your email with anyone else.

Shopping in-store Fun!

Support your local community’s economic growth by shopping for books at your independent bookstore in person, online at their website, or by phone.