Fantasy fiction meets political thriller in this weird but gripping story, an extraordinarily confident debut from US writer Christina Dalcher. The novel has one of the most grotesque, sadistic anti-women concepts since the medieval scold’s bridle, but we’ll come to that.
We are in barely-in-the future America. The country’s first black president’s second term is long over; he has been replaced by a white, right-wing, ruthlessly authoritarian maverick. (Who could Dalcher have based these characters on? She’s coy on the subject, but it’s a safe bet she’s no Trump voter.)
There has been a massive, co-ordinated counter-attack on feminism. Full-scale unashamed misogyny has caught hold in America’s bible belt and spread like a wildfire to the rest of America. With the full moral and legal backing of the new administration in Washington, women are swiftly stripped of their hard won rights – first their jobs, then their freedom to travel, and finally, horrifically, their very speech.
By the time VOX begins, all American women are restricted to just 100 words a day. The rule is brutally enforced by permanent metal bracelets attached to their wrists. The bracelets remorselessly count down to zero as each day unfolds: any woman who exceeds the limit – even by a syllable – is instantly delivered a massive shock; 1000 volts of electricity courses through their veins.
There are no exceptions. Baby girls are fitted with the bracelet at three months.
And husbands and fathers? Some hate the new regime. But many secretly (and not so secretly) relish the new enforced silence of women. How has it come to this?
Dalcher’s vivid description of an oppressive, dystopian anti-female society really has its finger on the zeitgeist. Donald Trump’s barely concealed contempt for women (remember his gleeful boasting of being able to casually ‘grab pussy’ as a privilege of fame?); the #Metoo phenomenon… Dalcher’s source material and inspiration for this book is obvious.
What is less clear is quite how her America has moved so swiftly from a progressive society championing womens’ rights to one that has, almost overnight, condemned its mothers and daughters into lives as near-mutes. But it doesn’t really matter how we got here. As Richard says, this is fantasy. Dalcher’s story starts with the immediacy of a nightmare and moves briskly on from there.
We see it all through the eyes of Jean McLellan, a brilliant cognitive neuro-linguist who was on the brink of discovering a cure for stroke-induced loss of speech until the new regime snatched her job. But now the new president needs her: his brother (and closest advisor) has suffered a brain injury and cannot speak. Jean agrees to help – but only if her bracelet and that of her young daughter is removed. The White House agrees. Jean can talk freely again.
The resistance starts here.
This thriller aspect of VOX gradually takes over from the futuristic fantasy, and very good it is too.
A highly unusual, imaginative book. But if you Tweet a friend when you’ve read it, don’t be surprised if you start twitching as you approach the 140 character limit…