Vox was a lot more powerful and disquieting than I expected it to be. Dalcher’s premise is simple: women are given a quota of 100 words a day, and a wrist tracker delivers an electric shock for violations. Considering that humans speak an average of 16,000 words a day, that’s a helluva cut.
I remember how impactful Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale was when I read it for the first time. Published more than thirty years ago, and Vox’s clear literary predecessor, Handmaid’s Tale is a quietly disquieting tale of misogyny taken to the extreme. It portrays a world where women are purely reproductive machines. Reading and writing are prohibited, and words are treated by its protagonist Offred as rare delicacies. So when I received an ARC of Vox in the mail, part of me was honestly expecting Handmaid’s Tale Lite. What can Dalcher’s book say that Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t already posited. More to the point, what can it tell us that we don’t already see all too often on news sites and social media?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Whereas Atwood’s novel was contemplative and quietly simmering with its rage, Vox is a primal scream, and exactly the kind of novel we should all be paying attention to. Dalcher is not shy about calling out the problems in contemporary society. The America in her novel, where women are limited to a daily quota of 100 words (on average, humans speak 16,000 words a day), is fuelled by religious extremism, in particular Christianity. The men in her story use Bible verses to justify their actions, and people who tow the line are considered “pure.” The American president was elected into office to succeed America’s first Black president, and is mostly seen as an unintelligent bully who relies on his brother and a pastor to enact policy.
Her protagonist, Dr. Jean McClellan, remembers all too well the protests her best friend invited her to join in college. When Jean said she preferred to focus on her studies and spend time with her boyfriend, her friend accuses her of living in a bubble. In the present-day narrative, Jean’s bubble has been forcibly burst, and she regrets with all her heart not having fought back more while she still had the chance. This part of the narrative hits far too close to home for me. Like Jean, I recognize my privilege in being able to choose to not protest, and yet like Jean, I too am guilty of burying my head in the sand in the name of self-care.
There is nothing subtle about Dalcher’s prose, and perhaps, like the much more action-packed TV adaptation of Atwood’s novel, this is precisely the approach our society needs right now to shock us out of our respective bubbles.
Beyond the obvious message, Dalcher has also written an electric thriller. The quota on women’s words was imposed less than two years before the story, so Jean very much remembers how life was before the quota. The stakes are raised because she sees her six year old daughter learning to be silent, and her teenage son becoming a proponent of the “purity” movement. There are scenes where the son tells his mother what he’s come to believe, and honestly, those were really hard to read. I felt how deep the betrayal must cut for Jean, and how frustrated she must be at her inability to fight back.
I also loved the science aspect of this thriller. Before the quota was imposed, Jean was a scientist researching a cure for aphasia, which, according to aphasia.org, is “a communications disorder that impairs a person’s ability to process language, but does not affect intelligence.” When a skiing accident causes aphasia in the president’s brother, Jean and her research team are tasked to find a cure, and Jean realizes she has a rare opportunity to fight back and try to regain the freedoms that American women have lost. I loved how nerdy the fight for freedom was, and the development of this plot line kept me flipping the page.
I also like that the book acknowledged other intersecting identities. For example, an interracial couple plays a key role in the revolution, and the wife, who is Black, calls Jean out on her white privilege and points out that women of colour face much more marginalization than white women. Deaf women who sign don’t have the same quota yet, because the wrist tracker doesn’t track sign language. Jean’s son mentions that a glove version of the tracker is under development to address that, but in the meantime, a couple of the characters use sign language to communicate. These are mostly minor scenes that I wish had been explored further, but I’m glad that they were acknowledged at all.
Vox is a page turner of a thriller, and a sledgehammer of a message piece about the rights of women in today’s America. The book should come with major trigger warnings, but at the risk of spoilers, the ending is well worth the read.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.