Vox Review

Vox, by Christina Dalcher, had me angry at the first page. Within the first chapter I could see the importance of having a voice and was surprised by the extent of cruelty inflicted by taking it away from women. A review on the front cover claims the novel is a modern retelling of The Handmaid’s Tale and while it features similar themes and holds a commensurate premise Vox does not anounciate the point quite as artfully.

When Congress decide that women should no longer hold jobs, money or a voice human rights step back about 100 years. Jean, formally a scientist researching ground breaking techniques to develop cures for brain damage effecting speech, is forced from her laboratory, strapped with a wrist band restricting her to 100 words a day and made to silently raise her children. But when the president’s brother has an accident that renders him at the mercy of the completion of Jean’s research she offered a rare chance at freedom. When provided her laboratory and voice back Jean is not only given the chance to finish her life’s work but could possibly save her community from The Pure Movement’s tyranny.

Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.

Mirroring The Handmaid’s Tale, Vox follows a young mother. She is similarly minded to Offred before their respective oppressive regimes are installed: uninterested by the rights her predecessors fought for, believing her place in society untouchable. With Jackie drawing similarities to Offred’s Maura Jean is given the chance to fight for her rights but states she’d prefer to remain in her bubble. This stark reality Dalcher faces her readers with is a point Atwood made three decades ago: many young women would be in denial until it is too late, the novels themselves serving as a call to action. Jean’s character continues to develop throughout the novel as she slowly learns to hone the fight that dwells inside her, providing a hopeful undertone that only distracts from the serious nature of Vox’s message.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale Jean is given the chance to fight the political system oppressing her. Selected to research the cure Vox’s plot is more event filled than Offred’s story could be. Similarly, both plots intertwine the past with the novels’ present day, explaining the events, thoughts and feelings that led to the current situation, exploring each women’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Vox’s plot has a bittersweet effect on the overall message, the ending feeling much less powerful than The Handmaid’s Tale. With Jean’s ability to fight back a feeling of optimism is conjured throughout the novel and the events felt somewhat less shocking as our protagonist takes action against the regime. Offred’s fear and powerlessness makes The Handmaid’s Tale so startling as women realise the irreversibility of loosing their rights, understanding that it would take many lives and whole decades to regain those freedoms. This aspect was missing from Vox’s tale, given the illusion that Dalcher had almost missed Atwood’s point, making the novel less plausible and giving readers a comfort that such serious breaches of human rights could be easily fixed.

The writing style presented was akin to that of The Handmaid’s Tale. With a first person narrative lacking in description and flooded with our protagonists’ thoughts it is a personal and trialing read. With Jean’s narration at the helm the novel is compelling and relatable, her struggle with the ever changing dynamic in her family and the loss of her job prominent throughout the prose. Her status and modern way of life makes Jean a more relatable character to Offred, although both tales are harrowing. The novel interweaves the past with the present, demonstrating slow and detrimental conditions women began to face.

The balance, between the present and past, was well struck: the novels pacing never faltering and the two timelines were written well in conjunction to each other. The added plot points made Vox more intense than The Handmaid’s Tale, the storyline busier and more cluttered. The novel felt slow in the middle and picked up noticeably towards the end, although it never felt too much of a step up and didn’t lag to the point of boredom.

Vox makes a more political and current statement than The Handmaid’s Tale, referencing current affairs such as a wall surrounding America and alluding to America’s current political system. With fictional President Sam Meyers in charge, who’s policies and attitudes towards women allude to that perceived from some government officials, the events of this dystopian are set into motion. Vox includes particular details as it describes the detriment of society and women’s rights, presenting the reader with an extreme that gives them pause to debate the possibilities. The strange society Jean now lives in is closer to current society than Gilead was in The Handmaid’s Tale. As men remain at work and women are trapped in their homes and the novel presents a cruel reality that many will recognise from history. This startling realisation makes the novel all the more upsetting as readers are forced to comprehend with the unfair way the country was once run and the anger at how unprogressive some attitudes can still be. Although the novels relevance and illusions to current politics render it shocking, the narrative is only relevant within the coming years. The novel is set in our present and, again unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, Vox suggests the time it is in: describing technologies, lifestyles and school systems that any reader would recognise as modern. This familiar world makes a powerful point: speaking directly to the reader about the current political climate and addressing reader’s, and Jean’s, unreliable security.

My fault started two decades ago, the first time I didn’t vote, the umpteen times I told Jackie I was too busy to go on one of her marches or make posters or call my congressmen.

Jean’s relationships with the men in her life is difficult following the political shifts in society. Having had an affair prior to the events of the novel her relationship with her husband has always proved difficult, the events of the novel and his place in government providing further strains on an already strained relationship. As Jean and her daughter are unjustly treated in society she begins to resent her husband more, making his character arc all the more interesting, the novel missing more exploration of Jean’s feelings towards him at the end of the tale. Jean’s relationship with her three sons becomes increasingly difficult as she is left mute. Unable to speak she plays an almost robotic role in her children’s lives, no longer able to discuss their schooling or social plans with them. This is explored further through Jean and his oldest son, who represents a generation of brainwashed teens, Dalcher using this pivotal character to represent the large and quick shift in society. His fallible arguments shock Jean as it slowly dawns how easy it is to manipulate people, including her own children.

Julia and her family present another set of complex relationships. Her mother, Olivia, represents the doting wife women must now aspire to be and demonstrates how, even those who relish the new laws, are not safe from its tiranies. Julia, meanwhile, is more complicated. Jean often draws parallels between Julia and her own daughter, Sonia, both young women displaying the stifling growth of the next generation of women Meyer’s government has led to. When Jean’s eldest, Steven, enters into a serious relationship with Julia Dalcher takes the opportunity to demonstrate to readers the effect of The Pure Movement on young relationships between impressionable teens.

One thing I learned from Jackie: you can’t protest what you don’t see coming.

Similar to The Handmaid’s Tale Vox makes a point that women are not safer in a male dominated society that discourages infidelity, making references to brothels for the elite and wealthy men in society. Although not as focussed upon it does discredit what few merits the new system is attributed throughout the novel. Furthermore Jean’s world view is expanded in Vox to see how these restrictions have effected different families. While one neighbour is punished for an affair the President’s wife, a former super model, is drugged to facade her diligence. Both women show Jean the faults with this system, epitomised by Julia’s elicit relationship and the pain it later causes her.

This novel felt appropriate for both teenagers and adult. The subject matter is just as relevant and although some graphic scenes are discribed it’s not as distressing or gruesome as The Handmaid’s Tale. With references to sex, torture and murder the novel is not appropriate for younger readers and contains darker themese while handling delicate and important subject matter such as racism and sexism.

Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. That’s what they say, right?

Overall the concept behind Vox is well developed. A modern retelling of The Handmaid’s Tale provides a fresh perspective and brings and shocking tale back to life for another generation. However the novel presents and unrealistic plot and Jean’s priveledge of going back to work and regaining her voice makes the novels potentially shocking point frivolous.


The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has made its gory entrance on TV screens across the UK every Sunday at 9pm. With the show’s success and it’s sequel, The Testimants, being released on the 10th of September I was grateful to be gifted an audiobook copy by Penguin Random House of The Handmaid’s Tale read predominantly by the actress who plays the protagonist on the big screen: Elizabeth Moss.

With the rise of birth control and infertility the United States is faced with a dwindling population. In the ensured panic a Christian extremist group overthrow Congress and form a new government: Gilead, which treasures the sanctity of life above all over values. Women are valued as mothers foremost and young, working and middle class women suspected of being fertile are commissioned to upper class households as handmaids, their only task to produce a baby by the man of the house for his wife to raise. Gilead claims to be a better and safer society for all women but with the rapid loss of her rights Offred still remembers having a job, money and choices. Dangerously she begins to wonder if, even with the population crisis, she should be viewed as more than just a fertile womb.

“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”

Offred’s character was complex. Desperate to fight back and find her family yet unsure how in the strict Gilead setting, her spirit crushed by the hangings, public displays and Moira’s harrowing tale, she is conflicted for most of the novel. Before Gilead she was a young, middle class woman who went to college, had a simple job, best friend and daughter. Offred’s pre Gilead life resembles that of many modern readers making the gradual persecution her backstory explains all the more personal. Her fearful narrative is also congenial, her fear and subtle defiances being more realistic than protagonists presented in many dystopian novels who offer unobtainable bravery and unrealistic abilities. The choice of a first person narrative makes Offred’s fear all the more real and relatability makes Offred a powerful lead. The character development she shows at she gradually decides to fight the system is pinnacle to the story and the journey the reader takes with her.

Gilead’s society slowly unfurls to the reader throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. Written as a diary the narrator assumes her listeners knowledge of her world and the events that led to it, leaving the reader to piece together the history as the tale progresses from minimal details dotted throughout the text. Although occasionally frustrating this innovative world building style creates a unique dystopian that encourages readers to delve into The Handmaid’s Tale with almost an analytical context. Offred’s comparisons to society as she remembers it, which are vague enough to be in the present day as much as the 1980s when the novel was published, are a powerful tool used to express the dynamic and underlying threats Gilead presents. Furthermore, Offred’s diminished world view: confined to one household and one small high street with limited knowledge of the outside filtering through from Gilead sources only, leave both the protagonist and reader guessing the scope of Gilead’s cruelty providing a powerful and haunting atmosphere. The historical notes supplied at the end of the novel supply additional and initially missing information which adds further gravitas to the tale.

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.”

Female suffrage is central to The Handmaid’s Tale. The inequalities before Gilead are explored in Offred’s backstory through her mothers feminist views, marching for women’s abortion rights and burning sleazy magazines, and through Moira pointing out the injustices she feels as a lesbian. Our narrator shows little regard for these causes until her rights are slowly removed: her job, her money and finally the rights to her own choices and body. Atwood encourages readers to consider the place of women in a modern society as she explores the depth of Offred’s place in the unnerving Gilead regime, bringing to the readers attention that, despite proclaiming itself as a ‘safer’ society high ranking officials still exploit women.

Using the actress who plays Offred in the TV series was a powerful and haunting tool. Although soft spoken at times her poignant telling was harrowing for any reader to listen to, the novel being told from Offred’s perspective making this choice of narrator even more preeminent. As stated in the fictional historical essay at the end of the novel Offred’s story is recorded on a series of tapes making an audiobook version appropriate. The Audiobook’s cast also includes Amy Landecker, Bradley Witford and Ann Dowd. The transitions between the four narrators is seamless and effective, further embellishing this telling.

The pacing of The Handmaid’s Tale is difficult. The first half is slow and methodical as Offred narrates her daily life as a handmaid: focussing on her shopping trips, the gruesome wall and the fellow maids in her household. This slow beginning sets an earie tone to the novel as the reader slowly realises, from knowledge of Gilead society and the population crisis that rape is central to the handmaid’s cruelty. In the later half of the novel the pacing is quicker when Offred faces disruption from her routine as dangerous choices open up to her. The plot is scarce and subtle, led by small sparks of defiance from Offred and tidbits of information about her past and present. Readers are given time to consider the events slowly as Offred navigates them, her small acts of rebellion giving an atmosphere of dread, the foreboding undertone of how Gilead will react to Offred’s small decisions and rebellious spirit ever present.

The novels writing style was simple yet effective. Told by Offred herself the more gruesome scenes are often depicted with similes and Offred’s accompanying reflections, making powerful images for the reader to ponder. Atwood’s use of simple fact like prose over long and detailed descriptions adds an earie tone to the story as the reader is left guessing at what further detail the unreliable narrative has opted not to share. The fictional essay Atwood chose to end the novel with was unusual and well crafted. The historian’s viewpoint added any context the reader may have been missing and a valuable broader viewpoint, previously only glimpsed from Offred’s narration.

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is not for the feint hearted. With it’s dark backdrop our narrator often swears and there are scenes of rape, murder, suicide and rape portrayed. The details aren’t graphic and I wouldn’t class the novel as a horror but any potential reader should keep in mind these trigger warnings. The target audience is adults.

Overall The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful dystopian. The narrative was harrowing and well written however the pacing slow at first. Although I found the plot unrealistic and suspect it’s more akin to an exaggeration than a foretelling the message is effectively given and remains relevant to readers today.