Monday, July 23, 2018

Book Review: VOX

Title: Vox
Author: Christina Dalcher
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The book cover of Vox thrusts its subject right in our faces. We see the word, Vox, Latin for voice, in big, bright red, with the X acting as a muzzle on the mouth of the woman. A Thou Shalt Not Speak.

I was very intrigued by the premise of this book, which takes us into a dystopian America, where the next president to occupy the White House, the one after the first Black President, is hellbent on taking America into the previous century.

In this dystopian scenario, few people have rights. Not women. Nor gays. Only the males do, particularly white males. American women are allowed to speak no more than 100 words over a 24-hour period. A pitiful reduction from the average 16000 words that we speak on an average. Women are made to wear a wrist counter which monitors their word usage. Women who exceed their quota suffer a painful electrical shock, which increases in intensity with each additional word that is spoken.

At school, boys and girls are segregated. Boys are taught Maths and Science; girls are only taught those subjects which will enable them to become good housewives. You need math for that, but not spelling. Not literature. Not a voice. What’s more, schools reward those girls who use the fewest number of words each day.

The girls are educated in a scenario in which teachers talk and students listen. It is a system that no longer encourages debates, discussions or independent thinking. It is part of the attempt to create a Pure Society, where God is at the head of man, and man is at the head of women.

Resenting the manner in which women are treated is Dr Jean McClellan, mother of four and wife of Dr Patrick McClellan, a medical doctor. Jean’s oldest son, Steven, is 16, twins Leo and Sam are 11 and daughter Sonia is 6.
Once a doctor of neurolinguistics, forced into being a housewife, Jean feels increasingly repelled by her husband, for the part he plays in the administration (he is science advisor to the president), for his sense of helplessness. She longs for Dr Lorenzo, her colleague on the prestigious Werniecke project she worked on, with who she had an affair before the counters were slapped on women’s wrists.

When the President’s brother, the one who advises him on important decisions, is injured in an accident that affects his mind, the administration needs Jean’s services, as also those of Lorenzo and Dr Lin, the brilliant doctor who headed the department. Jean agrees to re-join the team, on condition that her own wrist counter and her daughter’s stays off.

But something sinister is afoot. A deeper conspiracy. Jean discovers that theirs is not the only team at work on Prorject Werniecke; two others are on it too. And their goals are far from benign.

To complicate matters, Jean’s personal life is messed up too. She is torn between Patrick and Lorenzo. Who will she choose? Will she even have a choice?

Jean realizes that she is pregnant and the father can only be Lorenzo. Once news gets out, she stands to be publicly shamed and imprisoned, her wrist counter set at 0 per day. Her firstborn, now completely indoctrinated, would not hesitate to turn her in.

Very quickly, the author creates a sense of disquiet, hinting at worse to come. Women don’t have a voice. No access to books or pens or any writing material. No reading. No email accounts. No passports.

Women no longer hold jobs. The male is the head of the family and the bread winner, a fact that strains family budgets and relationships alike. The women must worship at the shrine of male supremacy and their own domesticity.

The premise of the book, written in the first person past tense account of Jean, intrigued me. In today’s scenario, we are all dangerously close to dystopia, with the state using its collective military and political might to stifle public opinion and human rights.

There isn’t much of philosophical rumination, and yet I found myself thinking about several things.

About how a maniac with power could destroy everything.

About the rights we take for granted.

About the judgement and shaming of moral behaviour.

About the right to speech. Not just the right to have an opinion, but the right to even speak.

About the fear of hearing your own children believe and deify something that defies and abuses your deepest beliefs.

About the sin of being apolitical, and consequently being swooped into a world where your refusal to make choices dooms you.

The chapters were short, and the action moved swiftly. The information regarding neurolinguistics didn’t come across as too overwhelming or excessive. It was seamlessly woven through and toned down appropriately for a lay audience.

The characters were all well fleshed out, except for Jean’s twin sons. They received so little space that one scarcely got a chance to get to know them at all.

The women of this book however have all thrived under the benevolent gaze of the author. They are all strong and feisty, defiantly so in a book in which the establishment goes all out to muffle their voices. Not just Jean, Lin, Jackie, Jean’s old college friend who eschewed comfortable campus life for a life of struggle and activism, and even Olivia, Jean’s neighbor, who once totally accepted the doctrine of Purity, but subsequently defies the establishment when her daughter is arrested and shown no mercy. All these women show that they are the kinds to make things happen.

I felt a sense of sharp pain and sadness at the plight of Olivia. Her total acceptance of the new doctrine saves neither her nor her daughter.

My only grouse was that the last few chapters were rushed. I wasn’t too clear about what was going on. The fact that our first person heroine isn’t present at the scene and she comes to know of what happened later makes for a discordant awareness on our part.

Also, the fact that Jean is so blasé about the fact that she is pregnant was odd. If she was at all affected, it was only with the thought that she might be punished for her decision. She doesn’t seem to think about how her pregnancy would be viewed by her husband. Their whole romance didn’t strike me as being so raw and passionate as Jean seemed to think it was.

These two issues spoiled the book for me, and I wish the author had taken care of them.  

Other than these, I’d certainly recommend the book for the issues it forces you to think of. 

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

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