Title: When She Woke
Author: Hillary Jordan
On the Shelves: Fiction> Dystopian
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 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 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 (Goodreads 2014)
When She Woke is set in future America, where after a massive war, a Revolution of sorts occurred, and basically, the Church now governs the laws. This book is a re-telling of The Scarlet Letter but reminded me a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984- in a good way. I opened this book not really remembering what it was about and I was fascinated from the start. As someone who has written a fair few essays and delivered some presentations on why we should or should not have Sexual Offender Notification Laws (SORN) available to the public, this book takes the idea of the Notification Laws to a whole new level. Those who commit crimes are not only imprisoned for a time, but once they are released “on parole” so to speak, their skin is discoloured so that from just looking at them, the public know exactly what type of crimes they have committed. Minor crimes are coloured Yellow. Sexual Offenders are coloured Blue and Murder, like Hannah? Murder is Red. As the book points out, those who are coloured blue don’t last very long in society- “their bodies just turn up…hung..shot”. This is already not too far from cases of vigilantism, both in America and Britain, sometimes due to the SORN laws making personal details available for all to see- and sometimes just because someone “looks” like a certain type of criminal who would be coloured blue in this future society…
But since Hannah is a Red, lets talk about why she is a Red: I imagine this is the extreme view of what would happen should the “pro-life” political party get into power. Hannah has committed second degree murder because she had an abortion of an illegitimate child, because the father is a powerful figure in the society who’d never acknowledge or support the child. She is sentenced to thirty days imprisonment and 16 years of being coloured Red. She is disowned by her family and her religion. While in prison, Hannah is confined to a cell where her every move is televised throughout the day for the rest of society at home. The channels switch through a large amount of prisoners, but Hannah has no idea when she is or is not on television.
This is the most original dystopian novel I’ve read in a fair while so I just want to gush over the world building and society for a bit because folks, this is how a dystopian world is written. Take notes!
I found this world fascinating, as I’ve said, both as a criminology/criminal justice student and also as an Atheist. To quote Gideon from Criminal Minds “I’m tired of people using their religion to justify the terrible things they do”- and this book examines what would happen if we were to let religion become the divine power behind deciding the laws of society. It takes away objectivity, human rights, specifically women’s rights (surprise there- not) and also the many of the rights of freedom.
I enjoyed Hannah’s character from the start, if only because she is so rebellious despite growing up in this confined and suffocating religious society, unafraid to ask questions and think for herself. Her morality defines her own choices, rather than the fear of mortality. I always admire characters who stand up for themselves, despite being faced with grim odds. Atticus Finch says “the one thing that does not abide by the majority rule is a man’s conscious. Before I life with others, I have to be able to live with myself”. This is one of my all time favourite quotes, and Hannah seems to live by it too. She feels she can accept any punishment society may lay on her, but at the end of the day she feels no remorse or shame for what she did, as she keeps being told she should- but rather relief because she knows that it was the best thing for both herself and the unborn baby, rather than the child being born into a life of shame and stigma because of it’s parents.
Like a lot of reviews on this book however, I found the story lost a bit of it’s “oomph” upon reaching the final part of the book. I was riveted upto the halfway point and once Hannah left the “School”, I found my attention wandering. I still wanted to know what happened at the end, but I just wasn’t enjoying it quite as much as I originally did. I also couldn’t help but feel like Hannah’s “relationship” with Simone came out of nowhere and it felt like it was just done by the author to tick a box, not for any other reason- to me, anyway.
Other than that, if you are a fan of dystopians, I really recommend this book, if only for the fantastic world building and the societal issues addressed within its themes!