This is the kind of book that affirms why a large part of me has always wanted to be a writer. The writing is developed, the character voice is both complex and assured and the story does just enough to entice you to ask questions and read on until you find your answers. I’m still feeling the latter. I would read a sequel if Dalcher wrote one, which she easily could. That’s not to say that the ending feels incomplete or leaves you dissatisfied. It’s just the kind of story that gives the feeling of it living on after its final page.
I read this book for two reasons. First, there is a quote by Elle on the cover that likens it to a “petrifying reimagining of The Handmaid’s Tale“. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an electrifying novel. Set in a dystopian world, she re-imagines a society where women exist purely to aid the reproduction system. Women are either idols (the privileged) or objects (the under-privileged). Men have certain sexual rights to a woman’s body that she has no control over and they are forced to submit and serve their purpose. As with any dystopian novel, there are consequences for failing to comply. The narrative voice in The Handmaid’s Tale is so captivating. The main character is quiet when she needs to be but as the reader we get unlimited access to her voice. And so we become connected to her journey. We want her to keep playing the game right, to collect all of the necessary clues and tools and escape. I strongly suggest reading it if you haven’t, I wrote a review of it once here. There was also a TV adaptation of the novel that came on last year if I’m correct and if you’re not the reading type (although you probably are if you clicked on this post) then try watching that instead. I caught glimpses of it here and there and I was impressed.
The second reason was because I love the idea of dystopian fiction. I just think that there are so many things wrong with the world at the moment. Things that we don’t take as seriously as we should. Things like environmental jeopardy, racially motivated attacks, very dangerously prejudiced people in high positions of power, hate crime against disadvantaged groups or groups that not everybody has bothered to try and gain an understanding of yet. And I think that dystopian fiction not only explores the dangers of this but it foreshadows what will happen if we don’t make changes before it’s too late. Too late is a time that has more immediacy than we like to acknowledge. Too late could be tomorrow, next month or next year if we’re not careful. Reading Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t necessarily feel like fiction the whole way through. Although that’s unsettling, it’s just a genre that I find particularly interesting.
The premise of Dalcher’s novel is not overcomplicated. In this American society, women have access to 100 words a day. Every woman has been fitted with a counter on their wrist, which tracks the number of words they’ve reached. If a woman speaks more than 100 words a day, she gets a shock and the voltage of the shock increases for something like every ten words she goes over the limit. The voltage can increase high enough to burn your whole body, let me be clear on that. Every household is patriarchal. The man works, the woman stays at home to be the angel in the house. Taking care of the cooking, the cleaning and the childcare. Only men have access to incoming post, bank accounts, I think even the internet. Women don’t even have passports anymore in this society – their identity is completely erased, their lives completely controlled.
The main villain is a Reverend, so there is a lot of reference to certain parts of religious scripture that identify women as subservient to men. Because of this, there is also the idea that heterosexual relationships are divine relationships and homosexual relationships are sinful. There are camps for gay people and any children that gay couples have are sent into the care of their most immediate heterosexual household. There are also public shamings for anybody who strays from any of the new rules. The shamings are led by Reverend Carl and broadcast nationally.
The story we follow in particular is Jean McClellan’s. A year ago she was the leading scientist in the country. In this new society, none of that matters until the government ask for her help in finding a cure for the president’s son, who has aphasia. Jean goes back to being Dr. McClellan, but of course, everything is not as simple as coming up with a cure and handing it over. There’s a lot more going on both in the government and in Jean’s personal life. The two are carefully wound together and they depend on each other. You can’t have Jean’s story without the government’s story and this need for a cure. Which means that by the novel’s final chapters, the stakes are a lot higher and you find yourself fully invested in the world and her story.
There’s a lot of chaos in the novel. Things feel like they’re suspended in the air and you’re carefully waiting for them to either drift back down or spontaneously combust because something has gone horribly wrong. And that’s what makes this book so great. The fact that it’s impossible for any conclusion to be a complete solution to the vast number of challenges in this story.
As I said earlier, reading this book does make you think. It really wouldn’t take a lot for something like this to happen. I highly recommend this book, I think it’s just such a brilliantly provocative exploration of human psychology and the dangers of religion, science and society.