Title: When She Woke
Author: Hillary Jordan
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Source: ARC from publisher
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.
I was pulled towards this book the moment I received the ARC from Algonquin Books – it was one of the most gorgeous ARCs I had ever seen. So I flipped over and read the back, and was further intrigued. I’ve never read The Scarlet Letter but I have read The Handmaid’s Tale, and I thought the story had potential.
I wasn’t disappointed. I thought this book was very entertaining, and I was sucked into it almost instantly.
When we meet Hannah, she is just waking up after her “chroming”. She has aborted her child and was caught, and now her punishment is to be marked as a murderer for the next 16 years. Not only will she be tracked everywhere she goes, but her skin is the bright red of a ripe tomato.
Hannah’s United States is one that is ruled by religion in its most stringent and conservative forms. To add to that, Hannah’s family is ultra-religious, which has sheltered her even further and made her punishment that much more difficult to handle.
Hannah is young and naive in many ways. She was raised to be dependent upon others, so once she is released and is essentially on her own, she has no idea what to do other than to find someone else to be dependent on. But who can she trust?
There were definitely pieces of dialogue that made me sit up and take notice. This passage, in particular:
“Her mother held up a forefinger. ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ A second finger. ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.’ A third. ‘You shall not murder.’ The little finger. ‘Honor your father and mother, so that you may—’
Her anger woke Hannah’s own. ‘Careful, Mama,’ she said, ‘you’ll run out of fingers.'”
I also though the author did a good job of sneaking in world-building background. Such as:
“When she was twelve, she’d snuck out of the house on Angeles Day for an illicit bike ride. She’d been restless and tired of the day’s solemnity, of kneeling all morning with her parents and praying for the souls of the innocent dead, of waiting for the clock’s hands to reach the fateful moment of 11:37 and the bells of the neighborhood churches to begin their mournful tolling; and then afterward, of watching the familiar montage of images on the vid: the mushroom cloud rising over the Pacific, the miles of rubble strewn with the charred bodies of the victims, the mass burials and funerals, the bombs falling on Tehran.”
Quick paragraphs like that were enough to give us an idea of how society could change so drastically.
The book does have its problems. Some parts of Hannah’s story take way too long, while others, that could have been expanded upon, are rushed. Her brief relationship with Simone has no real purpose. There are many minor characters whose only purpose is to be the counterpoint to another character, often a blatant direct opposite. And the ending is way too pat. I think it would have been better if it had been left open-ended.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and its twist on a classic.
- “Like most novels of this sort, When She Woke offers great fodder for book club discussion, and many in my group liked it.” — Lit & Leisure
- “When She Woke is well-written, suspenseful, and thought-provoking. It is a story of survival, of self-discovery, and of the potential hazards of turning very personal things like faith and love into political issues.” — Between the Covers
- “Hillary Jordan impressed me so much with Mudbound that I coveted her follow-up novel before I even knew what it was about. I never wanted to put When She Woke down once I picked it up.” — Literate Housewife