REVIEW: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars, Genre: Fiction/ Dystopian Fiction, Pages: 368, Level: Easy/Intermediate


Book Description from Barnes & Noble:

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.

First, I want to be up front and say that this book is about abortion. It is basically pro-choice propaganda hiding behind the sub-genre of dystopian fiction. If you have a problem with that, don’t read this book.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. I couldn’t do it without spoilers. If you decide to read the review, you’ll understand why.

In a retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hillary Jordan’s world presents us with Hannah Payne. In a futuristic United States, a new form of punishment for crimes has been established known as melachroming. Those who are convicted of crimes and who are not likely to be violent or repeat a violent act, are given a virus that turns their skin a different color based on their crime. Those accused of murder are melachromed red. In addition, most states have enacted the Sanctity of Life law that makes abortion a crime- murder. Hannah lives in Texas (of course) and her family belongs to a fanatically religious community. She begins an affair with their married parish pastor and becomes pregnant, so she has an abortion and is caught. She is melachromed red. When She Woke tells the story of what happens to Hannah when she must go back out into society, branded with her crime.

This book is going to be a little difficult to review. As I always say, I review books based on how much I enjoy them and for the most part, I did enjoy When She Awoke. The problem is that rather than being just fiction, the book is primarily pro-choice propaganda. If the book had remained simply dystopian fiction, this would be a very different review.

The dystopian world Jordan sets up is intriguing. Religious fundamentalism seems to have taken over the government and abortion is now illegal, considered to be murder. Here’s the problem- why just include abortion? This is why I say that the book is obviously propaganda. If it were truly intended as a dystopian fiction novel, adultery would have also been included as a crime, or homosexuality. But they’re not.

After being released, Hanna’s father takes her to a reeducation safe house called The Straight Path Center. This safe house and the two founders, the Henleys, are creepy. Creepy is good. But Jorden deserts this path too soon, totally abandoning a potentially weird and fascinating story. Jobs are posted on a board and there is the mysterious job assignment referred to only as Zilpah. Later, another Chrome named Kayla, tells Hannah the Zilpah job is just personal assistant stuff for Mrs. Henley. Wikipedia: “Zilpah also figures in the competition between Jacob’s wives to bear him sons. Leah stops conceiving after the birth of her fourth son, at which point Rachel, who had not yet borne children, offers her handmaid, Bilhah, in marriage to Jacob so that she can have children through her. When Bilhah conceives two sons, Leah takes up the same idea and presents Zilpah as a wife to Jacob.” I can’t even begin to list all the creepy scenarios that could have come out of this. Yet after planting such a provocative mystery with Bridget telling Hannah she’ll learn more about that job later, the author abandons it! WTH? Did she not understand the significance of using the name Zilpah? Jordan could have had a whole The Handmaid’s Tale thing going on. So disappointing…

Hannah leaves the center and visits her sister Becca  whose husband Cole joined The Fist of Christ, “the most brutal and feared vigilante group in Texas, known to be responsible for the deaths of dozens of Chromes and the beating and torture of hundreds more… Each struck a single blow with whatever weapon he chose to use: a boot or a brass-knuckled fist, a club, a knife, a gun. Each had the power when his turn came to maim, kill or let live, at his sole discretion.” Again, this could have been a really good storyline, yet Jordan teases the reader with it, brings it up only once more and then drops it. In my opinion, that was another big mistake.

Then there’s the revolutionary movement called the Novembrists. Given the topic, it makes perfect sense that this movement is in the book; it sort of has to be. But the whole angry lesbian feminist leader thing just ruins it. The sensitive, heterosexual male whose motivation is more pure, is constantly being bashed and marginalized by Simone, the leader. Susan and Anthony, whose sexuality is not even mentioned, are minimal characters and have to check with Simone for everything. It would be different if they were all on the same level and there was someone else above all of them, but that is not the case. It’s disingenuous and blatant propaganda. And here’s the more important question- why do we care that Simone is a lesbian? Does it further the plot any? No. There are no laws against homosexuality. In addition, Hannah’s interaction with these characters is so short. Under the circumstances, is it realistic that this should come up? No.

Unless you want to add another totally unnecessary scene- a lesbian sex scene. It was stupid. Hannah obviously is not a lesbian. She was in love with Aidan before the lesbian scene. She was in love with Aidan after the lesbian scene. “She’d just been intimate with another woman. She’d initiated their intimacy, taken pleasure in it, felt deeply connected to another woman. Did that make her a lesbian then, or a bisexual? Would she be attracted to other women besides Simone, or had this been an anomaly, sparked by her kidnapping, near-rape and rescue?” Besides the fact that Jordan immediately gives Hannah an out, this was just unnecessary and pointless. This is the only time Hanna’s sexuality comes into question and it lasts for a few pages- that’s it! What’s the point? It’s like Jordan wanted to just throw in a bunch of social complaints and then take them nowhere. Again, in my opinion, the author should have focused on something and stuck with it. Hannah goes from a fundamental environment, to having an affair with a married pastor, then has an abortion, has the strength to run from a reeducation safe house, gets entangled with a resistance movement, and then just to round things out a bit, not only has a lesbian experience, but initiates it and knows exactly what to do. Let that sink in- Hannah knew exactly what to do. Sorry, but I’ve got to call it- BS!

Ahh… there’s more, but I am so tired at this point. It simply is not worth it…

I originally rated When She Woke as three stars, but after going through the review and identifying all the lost opportunities, I just couldn’t do it. Yes I enjoyed most of the book, but in order to, I had to mentally dismiss all the propaganda. Toward the end, Jordan lost my interest, but since I was so close to finishing, I kept with it. However, by that point, it was already obvious where Hannah would end up. It was an easy ending. I had hoped Jordan wouldn’t go there, but she did.

Reviewed by Christina

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