The cover of this book promised me a new ‘Handmaid’s tale’ and claimed it would ‘blow my mind’ (thanks Prima, whoever you are).
That’s a tall order for any novel, especially one that has fallen into my little mitts, given that I am a huge fan of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I read it in sixth form and immediately planned to get myself a tattoo of the handmaids’ motto: ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’.
Thankfully, I didn’t. But the book has occupied a high plinth in the library of my mind ever since.
A deafening silence
‘Vox’ is a dystopian vision of American society in which a democratically elected government has forced all women to wear counters on their wrists which give them an electric shock if they say more than 100 words a day.
Instant comparisons will be made to Naomi Alderman’s smash hit of last year, ‘The Power’, in which women suddenly develop the ability to give people electric shocks, thus flipping the violence-related power balance of society.
Both concepts have huge potential for an exciting, provocative and politically charged novel. But whereas Alderman’s novel made me think for days after I finished it, Vox went out with a bit of a whimper for me.
Dalcher starts from a great idea – the loss of the female voice is symbolic and seems worryingly prescient – and the novel that follows is undeniably an exciting ‘high-octane’ thriller.
Beyond the original concept, though, it is not a nuanced exploration of women’s oppression. It’s a plot-driven Hollywood blockbuster.
Indeed, when I have talked about it with friends, one of the comments I keep getting is: ‘this is a book that wants to be made into a film.’ I tend to agree.
A sign of the times
The lead character in the novel is Jean, a field-leading expert in the study of Wernicke’s area. When damaged, this part of the brain renders the victim capable of speech but unable to say anything with meaning.
When the president’s brother is involved in an accident, Jean is plucked out of enforced domesticity – counter removed – to work on the cure which will restore him to health.
Her fate will throw her together with Italian Stallion Lorenzo, a fellow scientist who is vocally opposed to the new regime, in sharp contrast to her own husband Patrick, whom she regards as a bit of a wet fish.
We flash back to Jean’s time at college, when her roommate Jackie was out fighting the good fight with placards at women’s rights demonstrations but was sadly unable to draw Jean into the action.
This is probably the most socially relevant part of the novel, as some of the ‘signs’ that society’s collapse was a-looming are rooted in the events of today – notably the general apathy of most women in response to them. Jackie is the only one who can see it coming, other women (including Jean) dismissing her as a feminazi loon.
It’s also interesting to see how Dalcher imagines the steady collapse of the structures of our work-in-progress empowered society. It was a stroke of genius to have the misogynistic president democratically elected by a sleepwalking general public – it made the message that we could easily be the authors of our own destruction much more convincing.
Gianna e Lorenzo, amanti stereotipati
Whilst I loved the concept and I think Dalcher writes very well (particularly in family scenes, where she nails the intergenerational tensions between her and her indoctrinated son Stephen), the actual plotline is rather heavy-handed, with a generous sprinkle of clichés.
Jean is infatuated with her colleague Lorenzo who, in a particularly annoying manner, insists on calling her ‘Gianna’ in recognition of her (otherwise irrelevant) second generation Italian heritage.
Their whole relationship – characterised by passionate encounters in a crab shack (?), swarthy Mediterranean passion and much wailing and gnashing of perfect meridional teeth – is ripped directly from the ‘Cliché’s Guide to Middle Aged Women’s Fantasies’. Especially when pegged against Jean’s insipid and depressingly Irish husband, Patrick.
Jean herself is a flawed character, although I got the sense that this was not deliberate. Rather than her flaws being designed to draw you in, to make her relatable or to destabilise her narrative, poor old Jean is unfortunately just a bit selfish. And the number of free passes she gets for her terrible behaviour (from her husband, from her college roommate, from her kids – and possibly even from fate) left me a bit incredulous, frankly.
Overall I read Vox pretty quickly and to the end, which is a good indicator of my esteem for its exciting plotline and the interesting concept behind it. But I found that it had somewhat wasted the opportunity that Margaret Atwood (and Naomi Alderman) had seized.
Would recommend when you’re on the lookout for something exciting that won’t require too much brain work.
Any recommendations for new thrillers, team?