When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family, but after her arrest, she awakens to a nightmare: she is 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 colour has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime – is a new and sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. The victim, according to 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’s shared a fierce and forbidden love.
When I first heard about When She Woke, I wasn’t sure I could handle yet another dystopian novel. However, after hearing my colleague raving about it I knew I had to read it, and I am so very, very glad I did!
Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter in which his protagonist Hester Prynne was branded with the letter ‘A’ for conceiving a child through an adulterous affair, it’s certainly interesting to see how Jordan has adapted a story first published in 1850, into a modern, if not futuristic world. Personally, I’ve never read The Scarlet Letter, so it’s possible I didn’t quite grasp all the similarities or references but I definitely don’t feel as though it deterred in any way from my enjoyment of the novel.
Hannah Payne is a Red Chrome. She has committed murder against her unborn child, and her skin has been turned red to match her crime. After thirty days of solitary confinement, she is released into the world she once knew, but with a brand new identity, and one that will inevitably attract attention. What I found interesting about Jordan’s concept is that despite all the technological advances in the world she has created, the people are extremely religious and rooted in tradition and strong moral values. I often had to remind myself that this was, what I assumed to be, a futuristic world, and one rooted in prejudice and discrimination. Criminals, or Chromes, are released back into society and forced to deal with the open hatred of their kind; and Hannah is no exception. Abortion has been outlawed, and adultery is absolutely forbidden. But the trouble is not so much the adultery side of it, but more the person Hannah has fallen in love with. He is a prominent figure of the Church who many people look up to and rely on.
It is virtually impossible not to feel heart-felt pangs of empathy for Hannah. We all know we can’t choose who we fall in love with, and the fact that Hannah feels no other option than to have an abortion, for the sake of the man she loves, is truly awful. Hannah is a truly endearing character who will slowly end up becoming your best friend. You will root for her through every challenge she faces, and for anyone she comes to love along the way, particularly her new-found friend, Kayla; another Red like herself. I instantly loved Kayla, and for a secondary character I thought she was superbly written and I felt for her just as much as Hannah. I haven’t read Jordan’s previous novel Mudbound, but similar themes of race also transpire in When She Woke, as Kayla must not only deal with the discrimination against her being a Chrome, but also of being a black woman. Kayla is every aware that she would never have been made a Chrome, were it not for her also being black.
After reading the first one hundred pages or so in small chunks, whenever I had the time to read, I have to say I felt slightly disconnected from the world Jordan has created. I didn’t feel like I could quite grasp what this place was meant to be like. Then, as I sat down and read the second half in one sitting, I realised that this was in fact, the beauty of the novel. I’ve read many young adult dystopian novels over the past year where you are often told from the very beginning exactly what their world is like, with description after description of what made their world like it is. But, the beauty of When She Woke is that Jordan slowly filters in little bits of information throughout the story, slowly reeling you in, but in a way that feels completely natural. You never think to question why anything is the way it is, you just accept it because it feels normal. I liked the fact that Jordan entrusted you, as a reader, to go with it, rather than having to be constantly explained to. Hannah’s voice is really what brings the novel alive for me, and Jordan has done an absolutely wonderful job of creating a character that seems as real as you and me. As soon as I finished this novel, I immediately missed Hannah and wanted it to continue. I wanted to carry on her journey with her and see where else her life would take her, and that is all down to the power of Jordan’s talents as a writer.
If you’re fed up of the run-of-the-mill dystopian fiction filling up your bookshelves, then definitely read When She Woke. It’s fresh, original, exciting, and it will stay with you long after you read the final page. I’m almost hoping for a sequel, though I feel that may be a bit of a long-shot! Forget The Hunger Games, this is dystopian fiction at its finest, and it certainly doesn’t get much better than this!
When She Woke is published by Harper Collins, and is out on 12th April! A big thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.
- Hillary Jordan’s “When She Woke”: A Discussion (vol1brooklyn.com)
- Book Review : When She Woke (mohighlibrary.wordpress.com)