Spotlight on Debuter Dalcher's Cautionary Tale VOX | LibraryReads Author

In Christina Dalcher’s penetrating debut novel, VOX, a conservative president with a fanatic religious adviser executes a long-laid plan to deprive American women of their rights: they cannot hold jobs, buy pen and paper, or, most significant, speak more than 100 words a day, lest they receive an electric shock from the counter on their wrists.

In Christina Dalcher’s penetrating debut novel, VOX, a conservative president with a fanatic religious adviser executes a long-laid plan to deprive American women of their rights: they cannot hold jobs, buy pen and paper, or, most significant, speak more than 100 words a day, lest they receive an electric shock from the counter on their wrists. Cognitive linguist Jean McClellan, who regrets having ignored the danger signs, finds restrictions against her lifted when her skills are needed by the government, even as her laboratory work ramps up to a thriller-like fight to the finish.

VOX is definitely a cautionary tale, but as Dalcher explained in an email interview with LJ, it’s not just about the repression of women. “I think of VOX more in terms of the repression of individuals or of any vulnerable group. [It’s] a cautionary tale about the consequences of being passive, of not acting, of putting our civic duties on the sidelines.” In the end, Dalcher warns us not to take things for granted as we bury ourselves in our own special interests; Jean may be smart, but “brains and degrees are not necessarily enough; we have to observe and reflect upon our circumstances, always.”

Just as important here is what is being repressed: one’s voice. Dalcher may drive the story forward with a pulsating, nervy, politically suggestive series of events that include Jean’s complex personal inter­actions, a ­dystopian good guys vs. bad guys scenario, and intriguing brain science that could be used frighteningly to dominate others. But, ultimately, she’s most interested in our use of language. As the author clarifies, “I wanted to write about the power of language because it is so central to our being and yet so little acknowledged.”

Language has always intrigued linguistics PhD Dalcher—“how any child exposed to a language will acquire it…how easily language can be lost if a part of our brain ceases to function”—and she sees it as “fundamental to our humanity, perhaps…its sine qua non.” Other animals communicate—honeybees, for instance, do a waggle-tailed little dance that directs hive members to the sweetest flowers—but human speech is infinitely richer and more complex. “From a finite set of words and another finite set of rules, we have the capacity to create an infinite number of utter­ances,” says Dalcher. The first sentence of VOX communicates Jean’s newfound bravado, but, more crucially, that sentence has never been uttered before, and “the medium through which that communication is achieved offers so many more possibilities than waggle dancing.”

Inspired by a story Dalcher recalls from childhood about villagers deciding to speak only ten words a day, the better to hear beautiful music, the book’s counters remain a potent symbol of control and, even more, deprivation. Jean specializes in aphasia—the loss of the ability to understand or express speech—and it’s a gut punch to her (and to readers) when, ironically, she’s denied the right to talk.

It’s equally a gut punch to see a group of women arrested for seeking to bond with hand gestures, Jean’s daughter delighted that she might win a school prize for speaking the least, and older son Steve warming to the idea of women being put in their place. “Many people think of children simply as miniature adults, but in fact they are plastic (malleable) in so many ways that adults are not,” observes Dalcher of social pressures, which we see here don’t shape children only. In the end, VOX pointedly reminds you what could happen if you don’t watch out. And what could happen might leave you speechless.—Barbara Hoffert

Created by a group of librarians, LibraryReads offers a monthly list of ten current titles culled from nominations made by librarians nationwide as their favorites. Contact libraryreads.org to make your own nomination.

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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

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