Female voices throttled in patriarchal dystopia

Vox is the debut novel of Christina Dalcher.
Vox is the debut novel of Christina Dalcher.PHOTO: COURTESY OF HARPERCOLLINS

The America in Christina Dalcher's debut novel is a theocracy where women and girls can speak only a hundred words a day.

When they exceed the limit, they get electric shocks from the metal bracelets on their wrists.

To be deprived of a voice is every human being's worst nightmare. Dalcher's book - a brisk, accessible read-does a fair job at conveying the horrors of this patriarchal dystopia.

Vox - Latin for "voice" - is told from the perspective of cognitive linguist and mother-of-four Jean. She was busy developing a cure for aphasia, a language impairment, before the Pure Movement came into force and stripped women of their voices, jobs and bank accounts.

Dalcher's story is set in present-day America but filled with shades of Nazism, religious fundamentalism and the suburban hell of Ira Levin's satirical thriller novel The Stepford Wives (1972). "Hysteria", a highly gendered label that stems from the Greek word for "womb" (hyster), often rears its head in the novel, a reminder of humankind's long tradition of undermining women's emotions.

There is so much injustice packed into the opening pages that they seem to have been written with the aim of making the reader very, very angry indeed.

Dalcher was no doubt inspired by United States President Donald Trump's America, where the conservative backlash against women's rights now seems to be undoing years of progress.

  • FICTION

  • VOX

    By Christina Dalcher

    HarperCollins Publishers/Paperback/ 384 pages/ $26.84/ Kinokuniya Books

    Rating: 3/5

"The Bible Belt had expanded and spread and grown into an iron maiden," says Jean, describing the country's retreat into backwardness.

In Vox's America, it's not just heterosexual women who suffer. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people and those who have premarital sex and affairs are sent to camps and sentenced to hard labour.

The book raises some important questions. Are we wrong to dismiss the cries of far-left activists, extreme as they might sound now?

Jean's old roommate Jackie, who takes part in protests, serves as a foil to Jean who didn't vote in the last presidential election because she was too buried in her research. Does failing to take a stance against bigotry make Jean complicit in ushering it into the Oval Office?

The book undergoes a curious key change about halfway through: The regime enlists Jean's help for a research project and, in return, she and her six-year-old daughter, Sonia, have their word limit temporarily waived.

What ensues is a series of thrilling scenes - featuring a dashing Italian scientist called Lorenzo, no less - as the plot races towards its happy conclusion. Jean finally helps to bring down the president, an ending that is quite unbelievable.

The main issue I have with Vox is that it plays into the stereotype that people who champion women's rights are angry, man-haters, while failing to explore with much depth or nuance how exactly this anger - far from being part of the problem - can be channelled to subversive ends.

One can't help but feel that Dalcher, who has a PhD in theoretical linguistics, could have done a lot more here to explore the subtleties of language and the role it plays in gender politics.

If you like this, read: The Handmaid's Tale (Vintage Publishing, 1985, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood where "handmaids" in a totalitarian regime are forced to produce children for the ruling class.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2018, with the headline 'Female voices throttled in patriarchal dystopia'. Print Edition | Subscribe