When She Woke – Hillary Jordan
(published Oct 2011)
Ok, so this one is not so recent, but I read it last October and it’s one of those books that just sticks with you. The story, the ideas behind it, and the way it so scarily mirrors the possible near future left a profound mark and I find myself coming back to it.
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 colour 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 – aborting her unborn child.
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.
Red: The design team behind the hardback edition of this book deserve huge applause! Red, red cover, red pages, red is the immediate impression on the bookshelf, and could not be more perfect given the context of this book.
Political commentary: Reading it a time when abortion was a hot-button issue in US politics, When She Woke really brought home the possibilities of a future should pro-life extremists succeed in banning abortion. The overwhelming sense and despair and injustice you feel for Hannah and her punishment, and the consequent humiliation she is subjected to over her decision should, one would think, cause anyone to rethink their position on the matter. The first half of the book, setting up this world where those who have committed crimes are highlighted for everyone to see, and how women who have undergone (illegal) abortions are treated makes for addictive reading. For anyone following the debates on women’s rights, treatment of criminals, and religious extremism from all sides, it is difficult not to be terrified by how closely Jordan’s future is to becoming a very possible reality. This idea of ‘melanchroming’ people for the duration of their sentences is an imaginative process, and for me, demonstrated the idea of how some people cannot look past someone’s crimes and focus on rehabilitation.
Bigger picture: So often in these dystopian novels do we focus on just one country, or one small community, that it’s difficult to imagine how these societies function in relation to the rest of the world. When She Woke puts forward the idea that these changes are unique to the US, and the suggestion that Chromes are seeking to escape to countries like Canada where these laws aren’t enforced, widens the world within the book.
Hannah’s story: As I previously mentioned, you truly feel for Hannah and what she’s been through, and cannot help but to feel the injustice of it all. Witnessing how people react to her, how she has to forge a new life in such a hostile world, and how her own views begin to transform.
The Not So Good
Second half: The narrative slows down a lot in the second half of the book. After the set-up of this new future, we really delve into the narrative of Hannah’s journey. Although it is interesting to see how she deals with what happens to her, and the new people she encounters as a result of her circumstances, it doesn’t make for the same addictive reading as the first part of the book. At some points, it feels as though too many negative things are being thrown at our main character where the story takes on a kind of soap opera feel, however, Jordan’s writing manages to remain sharp and keeps you interested enough in the character to overlook these elements.
A great book which gets you thinking about current issues being debated in the US (and to some extent, globally). The creativity behind the set-up of this dystopian future is what works best for this book, and is more than motivation to read it.