Storytelling in Vox by Christina Dalcher – A Book Review

Author: Christina Dalcher

Title: Vox

UK Publisher: HQ

A little over a year ago I found myself walking around London Gatwick Airport. There was an hour or two to kill before boarding, and right across from where my father and I had taken a seat there was a WHSmith. Naturally I spent half the time browsing through the books. Fingering through the spines, my eyes fell on a stark black on red.

The title was simple, the cover eye-catching, the blurb brilliant. “We Will Not Be Silenced” the back read. And so, she was not.

Christina Dalcher peeked my interest and I made the purchase. A year and a half later I finally picked it up from my to-be-read pile, only to realise I should have picked it up much sooner.

And so, I’ve dedicated a writer’s review on Vox to unpick the elements that make this story such an interesting read.

“We will not be silenced.

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…

[100 WORD LIMIT REACHED]”

Short chapters mimic the counter

Reading the first few chapters of the book, one of the initial things I noticed was the chapter length.

They’re short. Surprisingly short. Maybe a 5-minute read at times.

Then as I read on, I started thinking. There is something that works quite well with these short chapters. Not just because it makes for a lovely read right before bed, but because it mimics the counter in a way.

Though the chapters are not limited to 100 words, their length does give the reader a sense of briefness, a sense of voicing thoughts succinctly. Whether intentional or not, it fits the story.

First person

Another element that fits the story well in conjunction with the short chapters is Christina Dalcher’s choice for first person. Jean, being limited in her word limit as she is and having been limited for almost a year would have in some ways gotten used to offering brevity.

These short chapters coming from her perspective brings us just a little closer to Jean’s world where she only has so many words to say what she needs to.

Furthermore, by offering a first-person narrative, Vox takes you right into the action, right into the heart of matters, through a woman, a mother with a daughter, who has been affected by these misogynistic societal changes.

Using the first person makes it gritty. It makes it raw. It speaks a truth that third person here might not have captured as well. The story needs to take you into Jean’s mind, into Jean’s actions, into Jean’s heart and does not need to take a step back.

The Environment as a Foil in Vox

In writing, the concept of a foil relates to a character that is the direct opposite of your main character. This helps to highlight characteristics of the protagonist and clarify to the reader what their viewpoints are.

Vox does this with Morgan, but not just with Morgan. Morgan in a way is the embodiment of the government and the society Jean lives in.

The environment therefore becomes like a character. Harsh, rooted in old practices, tyrannical, extremist. It reminds one of George Orwell’s 1984 where society’s Big Brother is very much a character in its own right.

The environment sits in direct opposition to the values Jean holds dear. In the story Jean is a scientist. A linguist. She’s bilingual in English and, of all languages, Italian, which is a beautifully vivid language, not just in speech, but in expression, in gestures.

Even more, she’s a woman. A learned, working woman. A woman who is used to having her freedom.

The world that surrounds her in the story is everything but that. There are restrictions on the use of language, and severe limits for women’s rights.

It’s an extreme. A polar opposite, which allows the reader to clearly and without reservation see who Jean really is.

Vox as an allegory to our world

Whether a counter limiting the speech of women is rooted in realism can be questioned. Dalcher herself has stated that she doubts a counter would ever be put up by women.

But whether it could be real or not is not the point. Rather it’s about what the counter represents. It’s a symbol that epitomises taking away women’s voices. Whether that’s by limiting their rights in abortion. Limiting their numbers in government. Ignoring their voices and pleas, so starkly fought against by the Me-Too movement.

The counter is a vivid symbol. Just as vivid as the chain the suffragettes photographed themselves with to represent the cultural chain they were bound by.

Even more, Dalcher brings our present to a futuristic world. As described by Richard Madeley at the start of my edition of Vox, there is little denying the similarities between American president Mike Myers and Donald Trump.

Though fiction, Dalcher encapsulates something that a good narrative can do: it resonates. It takes our present, the clouds that have been cast on female rights in the States, and makes us see our own world in a different light.

Character traits blended throughout

One of the things I noticed taking a deeper dive into Jean as a character is how well Dalcher has blended her character traits throughout the narrative in Vox.

One thing that in particular stood out to me is the untidiness of Jean. She comes back to a messy kitchen, has clothes that are not quite ironed well, there’s a piece of stray popcorn on the sleeper sofa. Her handbag is messy. And so on.

This character trait of Jean’s is blended throughout the story. In a way Jean’s untidiness again almost sits as a direct opposite to her environment. The society around her tries to keep everyone in line. Keep things neat and organised and have people fit into certain stereotypes. In contrast we have Jean’s messy kitchen, leered at because it serves as a kind of proof that Jean does not fit into the organised housewife model that society wishes her to adhere to.

It works beautifully in the story and brings a perfect contrast and reality to the strict society around her.

Cross genre in Vox

The interview at the back of my edition of Vox, conducted by Richard and Judy, affirmed my analysis of the bag of genres this book fits into as Dalcher mentions the story is speculative fiction as well as a thriller, a romance and science fiction.

It’s an interesting blend of genres that in the very end can best be described as feminist dystopia. It sits along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale and in polar opposite to The Power by Naomi Alderman; both books of which have similar stark black-and-red covers. Vox has certainly earned its spot between these books on the shelf.

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