‘Petrifying. Truly scary. Bold. Brilliant. Intensely Disturbing.’ No matter what you read beforehand about one of the most controversial novels of the year, nothing really prepares you for the terrifying world in which Vox is set.
There’s a new government in power in the US, a totalitarian leader elected after the term of America’s first black President. The Pure Woman movement has swept the country, the descent into full-blown misogyny originating in the Bible belt when “that swathe of Southern states where religion ruled, started expanding. It morphed from belt to corset, covering all but the country’s limbs.”
Almost overnight, all bank accounts held by women are frozen, their passports are taken away and 70 million women lose their jobs. Women like Jean McClellan, who has gone from gifted research scientist to domestic servant, cooking, cleaning and caring for the family. Like other women, Jean cannot read a book, nor can she access the internet. She isn’t even allowed to open the mail – and her every move, every facial expression, is recorded by cameras both inside and on the exterior of her home.
Worse still, Jean has to be mostly silent, limited to speaking a maximum one hundred words a day. (The average human being uses about 16,000 words a day). All women have to wear a fit-bit like bangle that is impossible to remove and records your speech. Go over the 100 a day word limit and a thousand volts of electricity course through your veins. Keep speaking and you begin to burn. Literally.
Vox (Latin for ‘voice’), is a devastating story of a world not all that hard to imagine, given Trump’s determination to build a conservative judiciary that will almost certainly attempt to reverse hard won rights for women and minorities.
With these parallels between Vox and real events, the novel has been criticised by some, much loved and admired by others. While its relevancy adds piquancy to the reading experience, Christina Dalcher’s novel embraces more than a society gone badly wrong.
Vox reminds us that speech is an incredibly empowering tool. And asks: are we in danger of taking women’s hard-won rights for granted? Dalcher hopes as well that people see Vox as not only about misogyny unleashed, but also as a tale of oppression, about the horrors that can occur when a faction – any faction – with a specific agenda becomes so powerful it’s unstoppable. ‘How easily can our world change while we’re not paying attention?’ she says in an interview.
Vox is suspenseful and fast-moving, unfolding in chapters written in short, sharp bites. You walk in Jean’s shoes, share her life of silence and domestic slavery, feeling powerless, frustrated and fit to bust angry. Jean fears for her children, for her sons who are being infected by the misogyny and for her young daughter. If her little girl cannot speak freely at an age when much of a person’s language and vocabulary is developing, how will she end up?
Eventually, it’s anger – and help from unexpected sources – that liberates Jean as she sets out, on behalf of herself, her daughter and every woman silenced, to reclaim her voice. With Jean’s fight-back, Vox ramps up into a thrilling, nail-biting adventure and I loved every minute of it.
Footnote: A little girl in our family happened to pick up my copy of Vox, asking what it was about. ‘It’s about a world where little girls are not allowed to speak,’ I explained. ‘What about the boys?’ she asked. ‘That’s different, they can talk.’
Her eyes grew huge, unable to imagine such a world and a line from Vox came back to me:
‘Think about what you need to do to stay free.’
About The Author
Christina Dalcher earned her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from Georgetown University. She specializes in the phonetics of sound change in Italian and British dialects and has taught at several universities.
Her short stories and flash fiction appear in more than one hundred journals worldwide. Recognition includes the Bath Flash Award short list, nominations for the Pushcart Prize, and multiple other awards. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband.