Vox by Christina Dalcher
Jean McClellan, former leading neurolinguist, specialising in aphasia, the loss of language, is now restricted to speaking just 100 words a day.
Vox by Christina Dalcher will draw obvious comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; both set in a dystopian near-future America where women’s rights are stripped away.
Originally written as a piece of flash fiction, Dalcher openly admits that Vox was inspired by Atwood’s modern classic. Telling The Bookseller magazine “She writes scenes that almost stand alone, like little slices of a great whole. You don’t need the whole context to appreciate the beautiful lyricism of her writing. So, more than the content [of The Handmaid’s Tale], I was actually studying the form; how did she deal with flashbacks, how did she build the world, how did she interweave the now and the past? That to me was very insightful.” She went on to sum up exactly why I found Vox so disturbing – “I think that women especially will read VOX and think the horrible part is being limited to 100 words a day. But in my mind the horror actually comes from thinking about what is going to become of the next generation. What is going to happen to these little girls who aren’t learning language in time?”
Dr Jean McClellan ignored the warning signs and took her college roommate’s cautioning as overdramatic, and by the time women’s bank account were closed and funds were transferred to their closest male, it was too late.
Before she knows it, there’s a bracelet on her and her daughter’s wrists, a device that counts every word they speak. If they dare go over 100 words a day, they’re given a debilitating electric shock. The originally small area of the fanatic bible belt have spread across the country and women have been ‘helped’ to rediscover their purpose and stay at home to care for their families.
Jean doesn’t accept her role but, like every other woman, doesn’t have the voice to change anything. However, when it’s discovered that she is one of the very few people who might be able to help the President’s brother speak again after a head injury, the tables turn. She has something they want but will they give her her voice back to get it?
Rather than ‘inspired by’, I would perhaps describe Vox as a reimagining of A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (which if you haven’t read, you need to!) due to the numerous similarities in the first half of the novel. However, the second half steers clearly into its own story once Jean’s medical skills are required.
Urgency is added to Jean’s situation when she discovers she’s pregnant, and not by her husband. He works for the government and the book brilliantly showcases how she fell out of love with him when he stood silently and watched her be repressed. How can you love someone who stays quiet while half of their family’s rights are taken away? He disagreed inside their home but did nothing to help her.
This novel left me raging, mostly at Jean’s oldest son. As an impressionable young teenager, he accepts the changes and, more than that, seems to welcome them. His complete inability to even attempt to see life from the female perspective is galling. Before women’s voices are restricted, he brings home a textbook for a new class that teaches the benefits of women returning to classic ‘female roles.’ It surprised me that Jean didn’t rage at this point, or at least sit her son down to try and educate him. Such a missed opportunity. He does learn eventually, but in a truly horrible way.
Overall, Vox is an infuriating read, but this is testament to how completely you become absorbed into Jean’s world. Although it will instantly bring to mind A Handmaid’s Tale, I would do all you can to think of them as very different novels. Vox is more of a fast, action-packed read which many may find more accessible. If you’re anything like me, and a feminist through and through, this book will have you cursing more than the allowed 100 words.
If you enjoyed Vox by Christine Dalcher, you’ll love Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman.