Book review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox is a novel by Christina Dalcher. Here’s the blurb:

“Jean McClellan spends her time in almost complete silence, limited to just one hundred words a day. Any more, and a thousand volts of electricity will course through her veins. Now the new government is in power, everything has changed. But only if you’re a woman. Almost overnight, bank accounts are frozen, passports are taken away and seventy million women lose their jobs. Even more terrifyingly, young girls are no longer taught to read or write. For herself, her daughter, and for every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice. This is only the beginning…”

I picked up Vox on a whim at a local supermarket, and at the time I was completely unaware of the storm that had developed in the book’s release. Any book that generates this sort of media interest has a lot to live up to. Expectations are only heightened by very obvious comparisons with Margaret Atwood’s seminal The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel which is very much back in the public eye, thanks to Hulu’s TV adaptation. 

Luckily, Vox is an entertaining and chillingly plausible thriller. It isn’t completely without its flaws (I’ll turn to these in a moment), and it is very SF-lite, but Dalcher’s writing is deft and the plot moves quickly. Although this is Dalcher’s debut novel, she has a history writing flash fiction, and her prose is both tight and easy to read. The central concept is fascinating. What happens when you take away not just language, but communication? How would a world in which mothers, daughters and sisters are effectively mute, function? Dalcher navigates these ideas, weaving them into an engaging plot. Given the political shift we’ve seen in recent years, and the resurgence of many right-wing groups, the concept feels frighteningly possible. 

Dalcher also knows how to pull the heartstrings. Some of the most effective sections of the novel are when we learn of how the “word quota” effects Sonia, McClellan’s younger daughter, and how the quota is but one aspect of schooling and education for a new generation of mute girls. How McClellan’s son, Steven, is indoctrinated by the Pure Movement – the group responsible for the restrictions on female rights – is also powerful. It demonstrates how radicalisation and indoctrination are not the province of any particular religious group, but weapons of fanatics generally. Your relationship with Vox is going to be made or broken by your politics. Vox has a very strong political and social message, and in that regard it pulls no punches. The exploration of female rights, and how easily they can be removed, is the backbone the novel, and to some extent the plot hangs on this framework. 

Where the novel perhaps doesn’t fully succeed is that it too easily abandons its central concept. Very quickly both McClellan and Sonia are exempted from the word quota, and although they obviously continue to exist in a world in which these restrictions apply, they seem to shift outside of it. We then move into the main plot of the novel, which is the prevention of a plan to remove language from the general population. Reverend Carl Corbin – the driving force behind the Pure Movement – wants to release a serum that will take away the power of speech. This is where I struggled with the plot development. While I could accept Corbin and President Myers want to deprive women of their ability to communicate, this plot shift reduces them to Bond villain status. The ending of the novel also feels a little rushed, as many story strands convene in a short period (in a way that some might find overly convenient). That McClellan is absent from the final showdown – and the collapse of the Pure Movement – also disappointed me. By the end of the novel, McClellan has been through a lot. I would’ve liked to see her succeed in bringing down the Pure herself, or at least being there to witness it!

In all, Vox is a very effective SF-style thriller. At times it is almost Michael Crichton-esque in its reach, and while the conclusion may be jarring to some, I would still highly recommend it. It’d make a great holiday read, and will probably get you thinking about just how possible the concepts it explores really are…  

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