Fair warning - all those fragile little white boys who are always complaining "why's it always gotta be so political? Ugh!" should probably skip this review and get back to complaining about Asian women existing in Star Wars or a female Doctor Who, cause it's gonna get real political up in here...
The simple fact of the matter is all art is political. Vox, by Christina Dalcher, in particular is fully informed by the current political trends in the USA. Dalcher explores the aftermath of the forceful rise of far-right Christian rule in America (a very real, very legitimate threat), where the presidency has become the puppet figurehead of a highly influential extremist evangelical preacher (rather than say, oh, I dunno...Russia.). Overnight, America changes as the Pure Movement sweeps through government, and in short order women are forced to wear bracelets that deliver electric shocks if they speak more than 100 words a day. Reverend Corbin believes a woman's place is in the home, and the US government begins removing women from the workplace, forcibly establishing its absolute patriarchal rule. Women are all but silenced and utterly removed from the day-to-day life of society.
In an interview with The Bookseller, Dalcher said her novel is not a call to arms, but "a call to pay attention. ... The fact is that our lives really can change in a heartbeat. We saw this with [Donald Trump's] executive order banning travel from Muslim countries to the United States. Everything changed very quickly." The rise of Trump has seen a radical and rapid shift in democratic norms bending toward authoritarianism (to see just how much his first year in office changed things, Amy Siskind's The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump's First Year looks worthwhile). Listening to Vox, narrated by Julia Whelan, over the course of a week that saw alleged rapist Brett Kavanaugh, nominated by serial sexual offender Donald Trump, appointed to the Supreme Court is a stark reminder of just how real the patriarchal rule in America is and how fully women's voices can (and will) be ignored, if not yet completely silenced.
Vox uses its allegorical limitations on women's voices to make some very important points, ones we should all be cognizant of and working to prevent (pssst...don't forget to vote November 6!). This is a highly political book that takes American gender wars to the next step, highlighting both men and women's complicity in this national silencing, the patriarchal "norms" of Christianity, and the sad fact that women really have become a punching bag in American society (to the point that Trump even mocked a sexual assault survivor and Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford during one of his recent rallies to stir up his base).
While it has plenty of worthwhile things to say, Dalcher's work ultimately exists in the shadow of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and oftentimes feels utterly derivative in its plot points and execution. So much of the story in Vox has been done before, and while Dalcher does insert a few original story beats much of the book merely feels like a reworking of Atwood's seminal novel.
Strangely, I actually liked Dalcher's book better thanks to some of her concepts and willingness to get into some of the nitty gritty. It's not the dull slog I recall The Handmaid's Tale being, and there's actually some moments of action. Dalcher posits her story from the perspective of a neurolinguist, although I would have appreciated a bit more focus on the impact of female children's communication development being so forcefully aborted. Imagine, if you will, a baby girl just learning to talk and babble, and then being electrocuted once she breaks the 100 word limit. Picture how stunted she would become once denied a voice. Dalcher approaches this topic late in the book in a very brief segment, but it's an idea I would have loved to have seen more fully explored.
And therein lies my main rub with Vox. Dalcher presents some intriguing ideas, but never truly commits to any of them. The shock bracelets present an interesting premise, but how women were subjugated and forced into wearing them is entirely glossed over. The impact on America's economy of losing half its workforce is all but ignored. We do get a few potent reminders of what the far-right Christian rule looks like in Dalcher's near-future, but we could have used more. There's a lot in Vox that feels half-baked.
Thankfully, Julia Whelan, an Audie Award winner, is fully committed as this audiobook's narrator. I first listened to Whelan earlier this year in her reading of Michael McDowell's The Amulet, so when I found out she was narrating Vox I couldn't miss the chance to listen to this book, as well. She does an outstanding job here, capturing those moments of high emotional intensity - you can feel the stress and worry, the excitement and fear, and those brief glimmers of hope that shine through this dystopian nightmare. Whelan is an excellent narrator and she kept me engaged throughout the entirety of Vox.
Dalcher shows some promise as a novelist in this debut, and I'll be curious to see how she develops as she steps out the shadows of Atwood's influence and discovers her own voice and original ideas. Vox, like A Handmaid's Tale, is certainly a product of its time and its era's politics, with Trump's regime and #MeToo clearly weaved into the story's DNA. Here's to hoping its more extreme ideas stay solidly in the realm of fiction.
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