Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Everyone judges a book by the cover, whether they consciously admit it or not. This simple but startling black and red cover drew me from the start. It is powerful and clean and haunting. And so I admired it aesthetically but gave the book itself a wide berth. After all, it was too science-fictiony for my tastes. But the raves for this novel, a retelling of The Scarlet Letter possessing elements of The Handmaid's Tale, continued to pour in. And the cover continued to be oddly compelling to me. Finally giving in to this superficial appeal, I rationalized that I had liked both the Hawthorne and Atwood books. Not the best reason to read a book but I am so glad that everything combined to drive me to this amazing, chilling story.

In the dystopian future, the United States is a fundamentalist theocracy. Freedoms have been strictly curtailed and transgressions are punished harshly. Hannah Payne wakes up in the first pages of the book not wearing a scarlet letter but dyed entirely and completely scarlet aside from the whites of her eyes and her teeth. She has been thus "chromed" to brand her with the generic details of her crime: murder. Chroming is the new regime's solution to prison crowding. Rather than incarcerate any but the most violent criminals, the powers that be change the very appearance of criminals and release them to live as best they can in normal society. Although Hannah's crime of murder is indeed violent, the murder she has committed is of her unborn baby, rendering her safe to be released to the general public. She has terminated her pregnancy rather than implicate in adultery or politically destroy her beloved minister, Reverend Dale, now the national Minister of Faith.

After her initial and brief imprisonment to adjust to her chroming, Hannah is released back into an unforgiving public rife with zealous Christian vigilantes to make her way as best she can. Although her father and Reverend Dale try to ease her way a bit from afar, and in the latter's case, without implicating himself in her crime, she is quickly exposed to the worst that a rigid, unbending fundamentalist society offers. Before her crime she questioned the strictures by which her society required her to live as a woman, uneducated, and with an uncritical acceptance of religion as taught to her. But after her crime, out of self-preservation as much as anything, she comes to reject her naive, unquestioning self and starts to rely on critical thinking in order to survive. Her new situation challenges her previously blind belief in religion, the place of women in society, and love. But what place does a society which would chrome someone for an abortion and condemn her more harshly for withholding the name of her unborn baby's father have for a woman such as Hannah is becoming?

Jordan writes skillfully in creating her terrifying vision of the future. The panic Hannah, newly red, feels is beautifully conveyed to the reader and the threads of this panic combined with a determined resiliency weave throughout the narrative, draws the reader along in Hannah's extended ordeal. The pacing of the novel is incredibly well balanced, never allowing the reader to relax, forcing vigilance with each turn of the page. The novel addresses many controversial topics, abortion, religion, homosexuality, politics, etc. and may (will?) cause some readers outrage. But in truth, it should cause all readers outrage. Because the curtailing of rights is something that should never be taken lightly. A cautionary tale retaining the morality issues of Hawthorne and the political issues of the Atwood, this is its own worthy entry into the ranks of the terrifying dystopian tale.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. I am very excited to read this one!

  2. I was very happy to have the chance to read this. I liked The Scarlet Letter better, but it still had potential and raised good points.


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