My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 326 pages
Release date: 21 August 2018
Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.
On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial–this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.
This is just the beginning.
Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.
But this is not the end.
For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.
If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them. But I wouldn’t argue. I wouldn’t say a thing.
I’ve become a woman of few words.
I loved this book. I also recognise that it has several dangerous flaws which make it problematic dystopian fiction.
Yeah, I know these conflicting viewpoints make it difficult for me to assign a 4 star rating or in fact any rating, and make it impossible to wrap up my opinion of Vox in a neat little package as my reviewing instincts love to do, but I’m going to back up, start from the beginning and try my best to analyse what’s going on here. Christina Dalcher’s debut is already generating a firestorm of controversy, and for good reason–but that doesn’t mean it’s a novel you should avoid.
First of all, as you might imagine from its synopsis, Vox owes a great deal to both the original and Hulu versions of The Handmaid’s Tale. There are shades of Atwood’s classic everywhere, and you can almost draw parallels between the characters: Jean as June, Patrick as Luke, Lorenzo as Nick. Jean even says, at one point:
In a previous life, or in a future life if I had access to books, I might make a decent editor.
I have no hesitation in calling Vox THT reimagined for the Trump era. With that description you essentially know what you’re getting. That said, I would undersell Vox to categorise it as just another hysterical nightmare scenario capitalising on sensationalist politics. While this is an unrealistic premise that felt so ridiculous I sometimes wondered if it hadn’t become a parody of itself, it’s also a chilling, intimate drama and a decent thriller.
The thriller component is especially noteworthy because it gives Vox its own sorely needed identity. This book wouldn’t be able to survive on introspection alone–we’ve been there, done that with Margaret Atwood’s magnum opus, which is brilliant but also very slow-paced.
Not so for Vox. Just like Dalcher herself, protagonist Jean McClellan is a neurolinguist who knows what she’s talking about (or thinking about, because she can’t talk these days). Unlike Dalcher, Jean becomes involved in a global plot right out of a sci-fi popcorn movie and has to worry about saving the world in addition to her family. Meshing well with Vox‘s terrifying dystopian near-future, it makes for a compelling story.
Now I want to address the predominant criticism of Vox: its “inflammatory” ideas and “misconceptions”, as articulated cogently by the book’s currently most upvoted review on Goodreads. That review rightly points out that Vox, unlike the great dystopian works, is very specific and accusatory with the cause of its totalitarian government. According to Vox, these are simply Christians. Not fundamentalists, not religious extremism combined with an outside crisis like the plummeting fertility of THT, but simply the Christian faith. This may be a slight exaggeration, but if so it’s exactly that, slight.
If you’re concerned about the gross overgeneralisation that Vox makes with regard to Christianity, read the review linked above. It covers the topic in depth. Personally, I feel that Vox could easily have averted this pitfall by fleshing out the rise of religious fundamentalism that takes place before the story starts, or at least by writing in a few Christian characters who oppose the regime to act as a counterpoint to the many sleazy Christian characters. I’m aware that that may be hard to do in a book with limited word count (being Dalcher’s debut) that already accommodates so many plot elements. Still, the lack of effort towards providing nuance unfortunately remains a sore point throughout the entire novel, especially as America’s Christian right is now undergoing its own #MeToo movement.
I believe that dystopian books, being inherently political as well as artistic, have the responsibility to address in good faith the real world issues it illuminates. Otherwise, nothing stops them from being merely elaborate sensationalist slam pieces. For me, Vox toes the line of what I can accept. I was able to mentally sideline its inflammatory ideas and sympathise with Jean. I recommend Vox in spite of its shortcomings, with the caveat not to read far into its religious statement.
*Thanks to HQ and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*