This sentence has five words. This entire review has 485.
Jean’s limit is 100 words per day.
In her debut novel Vox, Christina Dalcher (Penguin) imagines an America where every female must wear a wrist counter that keeps track of the number of words they speak. Sort of a like a compulsory Fitbit, except this device measures words, not steps – and, oh yeah, it zaps you with increasing jolts of electricity if you go above the limit. Non-verbal communication (sign language, writing of any kind, pantomiming) is also forbidden. Books are banned. Of course, these restrictions only apply to those born without a Y chromosome.
A typical dinner at Jean’s house is a chatty affair: she has a husband and three sons after all. As males, their oral and written lexica are unhindered. They are allowed – no, encouraged – to get an education. To achieve, to have careers. Life is different for Jean’s six-year-old daughter, Sonia. Sonia barely remembers a time before the wrist counters. To Jean’s despair, Sonia doesn’t seem to need her daily quota of 100 words. She barely speaks. She is docile, quiet, and uneducated in anything that isn’t necessary for domesticity. This is what normal looks like for Sonia. For most young girls.
Until it isn’t.
One day, there is a knock on Jean’s door. The President needs the country’s top cognitive linguist to resume her research on finding a cure for aphasia. He needs Jean. Jean, of course, has conditions. For both herself and her daughter. Soon she is back in a lab, working — an activity, a bliss she had almost forgotten. Her temporary verbal freedom allows her to deal with her rocky, complicated family — including her conservative teenage son, Steven, who vehemently disapproves of his mother’s newfound loquaciousness. There are also matters of the heart that Jean can now pursue. I won’t say much more because this is the kind of novel that is best read with little or no previous information. I will say this: it’s a very entertaining read. I look forward to the movie (I have no doubt that one is forthcoming, this novel screams movie deal).
There are many wonderful things about Vox: an original theme, a gripping, fast-paced plot. The writing is both enchantingly sparse and manifestly deep. But the best, by far, is Dalcher’s skillful depiction of a changed world, of the alarming ripple effects that come with one brutal, simple change: taking away women’s voices. A horrendous example: The Girly Book Club wouldn’t be able to exist in this speculative reality – although, come to think of it, we’d probably be a part of the resistance.
At once a dystopian novel and a political thriller, Vox will have you turning the pages, hungry for more words. It might also make you especially grateful for the wondrous gift that is language. I know that’s how I felt.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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