Written by: Hillary Jordan
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books
I am 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 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 for the crime of 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 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.
“When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.”
There are some books that are perfect for book club. They provoke discussions and definitely can, on occasion, polarize the group. When She Woke was one of those books. A Blend of The Scarlet Letter and A Handmaid’s Tale with something Other, it was definitely one those books.
Set in a future where the separation of church and state has dissolved, where Roe vs Wade has been repealed, and the country is now run by the Trinity Party which is largely made up of fundamental Christians. Los Angeles is now nothing more than radioactive rubble, The ‘Great Scourge’ decimated the population when it rendered women sterile until a cure could be found years later. Technology still exists with fully electric cars, computer technology, and nano-transmitters. However it clashes with the religious ideals which have become so important.
Prisons are only for the worst of convicted criminals. Instead a new system of melachroming tints a person’s skin a particular color depending on the crime they were convicted of. Yellow is for misdemeanors, Green for arson or armed robbery, and Red…red is for murder. When Hannah Payne wakes up it is to red chromed skin for the illegal abortion she had. For refusing to name the father of her unborn child and the abortionist, Hannah received the maximum sentence. Now she must live out the first 30 days of her sentence in solitary confinement, her every move broadcasted to the world for entertainment.
She survives her 30 days, but going home to her conservative religious family is not an option. Her father, the only one to speak to her, takes her to a halfway house for women who have been chromed for chromes are subject to threats and mistreatment as they are now the untouchable class. It is not an ideal choice, but having led such a sheltered life Hannah knows she is not equipped to take on the world as a female red chrome. The Center is of course no less chilling that the sterile walls of her cell she suffered through for the first 30 days. Hannah has to find the strength to endure, to find freedom, and to find her new place in society. It is not an easy journey, but it is one of self-discovery and hope.
Things I liked:
What I liked: I am not sure how Hannah survived her first 30 days. To begin the book with that was so incredibly intimate. I cannot imagine the psychological torture endured and then knowing that there are potentially thousands of people watching you as if you were some animal in a cage, there for their amusement and a ratings boost. Hannah is an interesting character. She is both incredibly frustrating and also quite enjoyable to read as she grows as an individual and begins the road to self-discovery. But Hannah always had the strength, rebelled in the ways she knew how such as asking questions, and creating her secret dresses of silk and contoured lines. She stood up to her future brother in law when no one else did and lets face it…slept with a married man for two years. She is far from perfect, but that is why I like her.
Although the real reason I really like Hannah’s journey is because she is forced to confront everything…and we are talking from jeans, to God, to sexuality, and everything in between. Hannah has always been a product of her upbringing, but now she is a product of life events. She has to come to terms with her belief system and make it her own instead of something that everyone tells her is right. She begins as a naïve woman, passive in most areas of her life and turns into this curious, strong, controlled young woman who truly woke up and began her life at the end of the novel.
Two of my favorite scenes with Hannah were the first time Hannah put on jeans and when she realizes she does not know anything about Tennessee Williams. In the first, she was always told that trousers were too revealing and made men distracted and think impure thoughts. At first she agrees, but then the more she looks at this new shape in the mirror and thinks about the hypocrisy of it all (men’s jeans are just revealing if not more), she gets angry that it is a woman’s fault that men cannot behave themselves. It resonated and how could it not. Aha the reason I am a feminist is because you are still asking what she was wearing at the time. Let’s face it, it is something that women face every day. I love that she came to terms, had warring ideology, and then made her own decision free of others’ influences.
In the second scene Hannah is looking at the world differently. “Had becoming a Red given her an extra sense, a knowledge of the hidden desires and evil in other hearts? She shook her head as a more likely, less romantic explanation occurred to her: becoming a Red had forced her, for the first time in her life, to really pay attention. [pp.185-6]” Great passage. I have a friend who had her own transition and I stood by her from the very first of it. She had her own revelation of what it is was like to be woman, all things that she once took no notice of. As she went through her own transition she felt like her eyes were open for the very first time. So again, a huge passage that resonated with me on many levels.
Speaking of characters, Mrs. Henley is a great character though a bit one dimensional in her villainy. Here is the portrait of a woman who truly gets her kicks not only dictating every moment of her charges lives, but making them relive their most painful moments that led to their chroming. She is not the pious religious woman that she is supposed to be, but instead takes pleasure in being a power hungry bitca. She loves the fear she can induce in the women at the Center. And I am still convinced that she either drugs her charges or at least uses some of their divulged information as leverage where she can. Although the worst part of the center was the damn enlightenment sessions where the women were forced to create and carry around dolls that represented the children they aborted. There is one particular scene that was absolutely horrifying and I am so happy to see Hannah gain control of the situation.
The other characters in the book are also not quite as fleshed out as Hannah herself, but I don’t mind that. This is Hannah’s story. It isn’t Becca’s (though I would have liked to see her story play out more), or Kayla’s, or even Simone’s. The men in the book are…well they aren’t great, but the same can be said for a lot of the secondary female characters. In fact the only male character I liked was Hannah’s father…okay and maybe Paul. And let’s discuss Aiden shall we. In a way, at the beginning, they were perfect for one another. Both were products of a lifestyle, of a way of life. Hannah found her path and became an independent woman. But Aiden…he never really changed did he? He was still cowardly and selfish. Hannah is a product of her journey of discovery. Aiden never goes on this, so in a way I can’t really expect him to change. Why should he? Yes Hannah is far too good for him. She loves him so much she is unwilling to destroy this happy little perfect life the world thinks he has. She is willing to sacrifice everything for a man who would never truly be hers and hers alone.
Of course there are comparisons to The Scarlet Letter even though Jordan said that the initial idea for the novel came out of a conversation with her family about drug abuse. Her uncle suggested that drugs should be made legal, but users should change color while on the substance. An interesting notion for sure and it apparently stuck. There are also similarities to A Handmaid’s Tale. In the end I feel like Jordan made it her own.
Finally, I think one of the reasons I really enjoyed the book was this future world of faith has plausibility. It is not difficult to suspend your disbelief and imagine a world where we still have our gadgets and smart cars, but essentially Fox news has created a new world order with its constituents. Sure the whole premise can be a little heavy handed at times, but then again so was Interstellar and I still enjoyed it. As I was saying the world was plausible. It was fleshed out. I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief too much. And plus it was such an odd world. Here is a woman who has grown up with so many strict religious rules. She cannot wear trousers, is expected to serve and obey her husband when she marries, and cannot read the most popular titles of literature. But she is also a woman who has a voice activated home and a car that re-orients. This juxtaposition between old fashioned values and modern technology was just interesting to read.
Oh and one more thing. I want all of Hannah’s secret dresses.
Things I didn’t like so much:
What I didn’t like: The last half of the book is a bit rushed. It feels more like a montage of events rather than a fleshed out journey that the first half of the book was. Some may have been disappointed with the scene between Hannah and Simone and in a way I was as well because up until that point I felt like they had no chemistry. I also wanted more out of Becca’s story. I felt like there was something there worth exploring, but ultimately in a different direction and Becca and her dysfunctional marriage were left behind.
Buy or Borrow: Buy. For me When She Woke was not the moment that Hannah woke up to red skin, but the moment she woke up to begin a life that is her own. It a wonderful book about faith, self-discovery, redemption, and, yes, love.
Part of:Stand alone
Also Recommended: Of course definitely try The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Perhaps How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff might be a good one as well.
3.5 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks