September 24, 2014
When She Woke
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
2011 HighBridge Company
Reader: Heather Corrigan
Finished on July 2, 2014
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good, but not great)
Hillary Jordan channels Nathaniel Hawthorne by way of Margaret Atwood in this fast-paced, dystopian thriller. Unputdownable. — Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day and Property
I am a Red now.
It was her first thought of the day, every day, surfacing after a few seconds of fogged, blessed ignorance and sweeping through her like a wave, breaking in her breast with a soundless roar. Hard on its heels came the second wave, crashing into the wreckage left by the first: He is gone.
Hannah Payne's life has been devoted to church and family. But after she's convicted of murder, she awakens in a new body to a nightmarish new life. She finds herself 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 sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. The victim, says 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 shared a fierce and forbidden love.
A powerful reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a timely fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of the 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 journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love.
Rating a book is such an imprecise act. Typically, my ratings for any given book have stood the test of time, but there have been some books for which I’ve been tempted to change the score (usually lowering rather than raising). I read Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound and gave it a perfect 5/5 stars. As I think back and re-read my review, I know that at the time I felt it was a great reading experience and that I was thoroughly impressed. Four and a half years later, I’m not so sure. I certainly don’t feel that it’s remained in the same category as The Help or The Book Thief, and yet at the time, it knocked my socks off. Hence, the perfect rating.
As I listened to Jordan’s second novel, When She Woke, I was impressed with her imaginative plotting and dialogue, stopping co-workers to tell them how great this book was. However, now that a few months have passed, I know that it was a good read, but not one that I would consider great. I haven’t read a lot of dystopic tales and while I’ve read a few of Margaret Atwood’s novels, I’m not a big fan. But as I read When She Woke, I continued to think about The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlett Letter. If I were still in book group, I would suggest reading all three books for one discussion, as they each address similar topics (not to mention all the obvious nods to The Scarlet Letter).
When She Woke is an entertaining book in spite of a weak second half. If you’re looking for a meaty novel to spark debate within your book group, this thought-provoking tale is certainly worth your consideration.