When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, nor sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.
(from When She Woke, page 3)
When She Woke was my book club’s July pick but one I’d been planning to read at some point anyway. (My wrap-up of our book club discussion will be posted tomorrow.) In this novel, Hillary Jordan blends aspects of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with more of a focus on abortion and technology to appeal to modern readers.
The novel focuses on Hannah Payne, a young unmarried woman who is melachromed for aborting her unborn child. Set at some point in the future in a time when the boundaries between church and state have blurred, a scourge has made many women infertile, prompting the government to overturn Roe v. Wade and institute sanctity of life laws. All but the most dangerous criminal offenders are melachromed, meaning they are injected with a virus that turns their skin a particular color, with murderers like Hannah living as Reds, pedophiles as Blues, and those guilty of lesser offenses as Yellows. Hannah has an extra six years tacked onto her sentence because she refuses to name the father of her unborn child — a man who is well known around the world and whose guilt weighs heavily upon him and takes a toll over time.
Hannah has lived a sheltered life within her fundamentalist Christian community, but she’s always been a bit rebellious. Those acts of rebellion pale in comparison to her having an affair with a married man, getting pregnant, and having an abortion, and it’s no surprise that after she leaves the chroming center, she has no place to go, having been disowned by her mother. Chromes are viewed as outcasts and undesirables, forced to endure stares, insults, and worse from those around them. Hannah is lucky that her father and her former lover are looking out for her, but the center where she is sent to live when she is released in order to be reformed is not the place for someone having a crisis of faith. Hannah is swept from one bad situation to the next, never having a moment to consider her life as a Chrome, always finding herself at the mercy of other people who do not always have her best interests at heart.
When She Woke is a very fast-paced, very readable, and well written novel. I finished it during two days of my work commute and had a hard time putting it down. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, mostly because I didn’t find the world Jordan created to be convincing. Melachroming doesn’t seem like a desirable system of punishing people, and the way Chromes are treated is quite sad. I could see why the fundamentalist Christian community in which Hannah lived was stifling, but people were living different, more open lives outside that community. I didn’t feel the fear, despair, and helplessness that I felt while reading The Handmaid’s Tale, where the religious regime that takes over the government infiltrates the lives of all citizens.
I also felt the novel to be heavy-handed and manipulative. Nearly all of the fundamentalists portrayed in the novel had no redeeming qualities, and one was even sickeningly sadistic. Now, I don’t know anyone of that faith, and those portrayed in the book don’t share my Christian faith whatsoever, so whether Jordan paints them accurately or not, I can’t say. But it felt like I was supposed to come away from the book thinking religion is evil, ignorant, and misguided, and that I was supposed to feel sorry for Hannah.
I did feel sorry for Hannah to a certain extent because no one deserves the treatment she received from her family and the outside world, and no one should feel like they have no options. And I felt bad that the man she loved was too weak to admit his involvement and let her shoulder all of the blame. However, Hannah isn’t blameless in this situation; she knew the man was married and that they could never have a life together, yet she entered into the affair anyway. There also were scenes that didn’t seem to make sense given Hannah’s character, events that seemed too convenient but were needed to further the plot, and an abrupt ending. I know these statements are vague, but I can’t say more than that without giving too much away.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but like the book because I couldn’t help but like Hannah. There were times I wanted to slap her or scream at her to open her eyes, but I thought she was very believable. For the most part, she acted like you would expect someone to given their sheltered upbringing. I thought her questions about faith before and after the chroming were authentic because we all question our beliefs from time to time, and her desire for human contact and to be loved despite her past transgressions and her new outward appearance was so heartbreaking.
When She Woke is a novel that is bound to generate some strong opinions, given that it takes on such difficult subjects as religion and abortion, sin and forgiveness. While I didn’t find the love story believable (it was more lust or infatuation to me), it was interesting to ponder a society in which technology is used as a form of punishment and how living with a reminder of past mistakes can threaten one’s sanity and survival.
Disclosure: I received When She Woke from Algonquin for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.