Author: Hillary Jordan
Genre: Dystopian, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: October 2011
Hardcover: 352 pages
Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family, but after her arrest, she awakens to a nightmare: she is lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes — criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime — is a new and sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. The victim, according to the State of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure with whom she’s shared a fierce and forbidden love.
When She Woke is a fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future — where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed and released back into the population to survive as best they can. In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: The cover first caught my eye a couple of weeks back, and then I read the synopsis and was hooked. Nathaniel Hawthorn by way of Margaret Atwood, set in a future dystopian society where the lines between Church and State have become irrevocably blurred? How could I resist such a book?
“When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.”
Hannah Payne, daughter, sister, lover, has been convicted of the murder of her unborn child and must suffer the consequences of her unholy acts. In this version of the future United States, criminals are no longer allowed to place an economic strain on the populace by way of incarceration; instead, offenders are “melachromed”, injected with a virus that turns their skin a bright color to signify their crime to society. Yellows, for short sentence misdemeanors. Blues for child molestation. Green for crimes like arson, assault, robbery. Red for murder – Hannah’s crime. Chromes are allowed to walk free and live out their sentence with their skin so dyed, but are ostracized by upstanding citizens and are the subject of cruelty, rape, assault, and even death by the hands of vigilante justice groups while the government looks the other way.
When Hannah wakes up in her holding cell after being sentenced and chromed, she feels the crushing, inescapable weight of despair. Her mother refuses to acknowledge her, and though her father and her sister try to offer what support and comfort they can, nothing can fill the void left in Hannah’s heart. For though Hannah chose to have an abortion, she desperately loved – and is still in love with – the man who impregnated her. She loves him so much that she got the abortion, and refused to name him at her trial in order to protect his identity. For her beloved is none other than the venerable Reverend Aidan Dale, a celebrated minister and icon of hope and sanctity to millions, the Secretary of Faith to the President of the United States, and a married man.
Utterly alone, marked for her crime for all to see, Hannah must struggle to find the will to carry on, to protect the ones she loves, and to fight for her basic right to live and be free.
When She Woke is the second novel from Hillary Jordan and, as with her first book Mudbound, has garnered immense critical praise. The praise is for good reason, too, as this novel is every bit as provocative, incisive, and culturally significant as promised. For any author to take on the formidable task of expounding on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s opus seems a doomed effort, but Ms. Jordan manages to not only use The Scarlet Letter as inspiration, but uses Hawthorne to create her own contemporary, politically charged social commentary. In form, Ms. Jordan tips her literary hat to Hawthorne with her character names and general storyline – Hannah Payne for Hester Prynne, Aidan Dale for Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl – though there are notable deviations from the inspiring work. Most notably, Aidan Dale is the married man (as opposed to Hester, who fears for Dimmesdale’s life because of her husband, Chillingsworth’s desire for revenge), and unlike her namesake who does not ever take off her Scarlet Letter, Hannah chooses to leave her home and seeks to free herself from her chromed skin that singles her out as a social pariah. But while these significant deviations are present in Ms. Jordan’s novel, When She Woke remains true to the heart of Hawthorn’s work, focusing on the central themes of the human condition, the notion of “sin”, and, above all, the importance of personal identity. As each Novembrist in this book says, “it’s personal” and Hannah’s experiences – everything she’s endured and survived, everything she’s fought for – have finally given her an inviolable sense of self (much like Hester Prynne before her). Of all the themes and plots in this book, it is Hannah’s path to self-discovery that resonated the most with me. Hannah is a passionate soul and headstrong in her youth, but she isn’t an infallible, perfect, or even exceptionally remarkable type of character. The reason her arc is so compelling is because she’s brave and strong, but she’s also incredibly sympathetic; her self-awareness grows because she is forced to confront her beliefs and everything she has been taught. Hannah is the product of external circumstances, but given her own volition and voice when she realizes just how cruel and broken her world truly is.
From a dystopian standpoint, Ms. Jordan’s future America is chilling in its plausibility. The line between church and state is increasingly encroached upon, and Hannah’s experiences play on the hyperbolic scenario where Roe v. Wade is overturned, a Secretary of Faith is installed in the Cabinet, and those who would fight for reproductive freedom and the rights of a woman to her own body are considered heretics and terrorists. Though the political and societal commentary will certainly rub some the wrong way, and do stray a bit towards the heavy-handed at certain points, for the most part, When She Woke is a restrained, eloquent critique of extreme conservatism, faith, and sexuality.
This is not a book for everybody, but it is a thought-provoking, poignant, and undeniably important novel. Absolutely recommended, and one of my notable reads of 2011.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Part 1:
WHEN SHE WOKE, SHE WAS RED. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.
She saw her hands first. She held them in front of her eyes, squinting up at them. For a few seconds, shadowed by her eyelashes and backlit by the hard white light emanating from the ceiling, they appeared black. Then her eyes adjusted, and the illusion faded. She examined the backs, the palms. They floated above her, as starkly alien as starfish. She’d known what to expect — she’d seen Reds many times before, of course, on the street and on the vid — but still, she wasn’t prepared for the sight of her own changed flesh. For the twenty-six years she’d been alive, her hands had been a honey-toned pink, deepening to golden brown in the summertime. Now, they were the color of newly
She felt panic rising, felt her throat constrict and her limbs begin to quiver. She shut her eyes and forced herself to lie still, slowing her breathing and focusing on the steady rise and fall of her belly. A short, sleeveless shift was all that covered her, but she wasn’t cold. The temperature in the room was precisely calibrated to keep her comfortable. Punishment was meted out in other ways: in increments of solitude, monotony and, harshest of all, self-reflection, both figurative and literal. She hadn’t yet seen the mirrors, but she could feel them shimmering at the edges of her awareness, waiting to show her what she’d become. She could sense the cameras behind the mirrors too, recording her every eyeblink and muscle twitch, and the watchers behind the cameras, the guards, doctors and technicians employed by the state and the millions watching at home, feet propped up on the coffee table, a beer or a soda in one hand, eyes fixed on the vidscreen. She told herself she would give them nothing: no proofs or exceptions for their case studies, no reactions to arouse their scorn or pity. She would sit up, open her eyes, see what was there to be seen and then wait calmly for them to release her. Thirty days was not such a long time.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Witchlanders by Lena Coakley
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