Bellwether Prize winner Hillary Jordan’s provocative new novel, When She Woke, tells the story of 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—their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes—and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.
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.
Though she was raised a good Christian, Hannah Payne often asks uncomfortable questions in Jordan's second novel (after Mudbound), such as "Why does God let innocent people suffer?" But questioning authority and breaking Texas law are two different things. Involved with her pastor, Hannah finds herself pregnant; to have the baby would mean publicly naming the father, so Hannah has an abortion. But in this alternate America, three years after the "Great Scourge" turned many women sterile, abortion is illegal, and Hannah is arrested. Her sentence: to live for several years as a "chrome," injected with a virus that turns her skin bright red. Her father finds her refuge in a halfway house for nonviolent chromes of all hues, but Hannah rebels against the abuse she receives in their "enlightenment sessions" and flees into the arms of an underground feminist group whose brutal pragmatism frightens her. But as she falls victim to betrayal after betrayal, Hannah's occasionally jarring na vet begins to break down. Comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale are inevitable; Jordan extrapolates misogynist fundamentalism to a logical endpoint, but she does little else. Characters are political archetypes, the narrative wanders, and even Hannah's transformation from dutiful daughter to take-charge fugitive feels false.
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This is one of those times I desperately want a half-star rating... It was better than very good, but not quite a five star - few and far between for me.
Combining Hawthorne's public humiliation (and a few other points) from The Scarlet Letter with reality TV, abolitionists' Underground Railroad, the extreme religious/political right, big brother technology, and a coming of age story, Hillary Jordan has giving us a scary glimpse into an all too possible near future.
In Jordan's world, prisons are reserved for only the worst of the worst and most crimes are punished by chroming - genetically repigmenting the skin to a crayola color - the perpetrators of crimes. The story is told from the perspective of Hannah who has just been chromed red - the color for murderers. We follow Hannah on her journey from a girl raised in an evangelical home through a crisis of faith to her ultimate destination - a physical, spiritual, and emotional end of an odyssey.
Ultimately, the novel is about dichotomy: choice vs predestination, retribution vs punishment, religion vs spiritualism, compassion vs hatred and more. Fortunately, such topics weren't dealt with in a simplistic manner nor so much as resolved as they were explored.
The characters were well drawn and for the most part sympathetic. Hannah was complex and her struggle with a situation that was horrific on several levels was believable although perhaps compressed. I didn't always love her - in fact there were times I wanted to shake her and say "how can you think that" but that is coming from my own largely liberal belief system and when I failed to remember that she had a lifetime of being in a system that she never had much cause to question. Characters weren't simply explained and it took time to get to know most of them.
Which brings me to my only complaint - I would have liked that exploration to have been a bit slower. Same for the world they lived in. There were hints that intrigued me about these "terrorist/freedom fighter" groups - were there others like the Novembrists or even like "The Fist"? And I wanted more closure on Becca's story. While I don't feel that the story was incomplete, I did feel the journey could have been a bit more - maybe some time in chrometown?
The novel has been compared to Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale and it certainly holds its own - where it fell short of the novel I consider one of the great political dystopian novels is in the language - the wit of Atwood and the way she created a layer of sacred language used to justify or hide the most profane of acts. Jordan does write well and the novel is a great read but fell just short of brilliant for me.
I've read many futuristic novels, and this one luckily, does not fit the stereotype of being like "Divergent" or "The Hunger Games". Instead, it is much more personal (pun intended if you read the book) and has an incredible Big Brother feel to it. The underlying themes are more than just societal issues, but also incredibly political as well. And most important of any story, this one is definitely a page-turner. It's not for everyone, but I would suggest that you give it a try regardless of your beliefs or genre preference. Who knows, you may see things differently as a result of it!
Overall, a great piece of writing.