Imagine bearing clearly-visible evidence of a crime you had committed. Imagine never being able to take off the sigil that branded you as a criminal. Imagine the eyes burning the back of your head, the taunts, the parents protectively grabbing their children when you walked by.
The force of this public shaming is a large part of what makes Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke such an interesting novel. Anyone convicted of a serious crime–such as murder–is melachromed: their skin is dyed red, or yellow, or blue (depending on the crime), instantly outing them…and cutting down their chances of survival once they’re reintroduced to public life.
The underlying premise of When She Woke is thoughtful and well-crafted: After a sexually-transmitted “Plague” hits the United States, in addition to other unspecified disasters including overcrowded prisons, a large swath of the country becomes extremely (and I mean EXTREMELY) religiously-conservative, outlawing abortion and establishing a Secretary of Faith position in the presidential cabinet. LGBTQ individuals are seen as pitable freaks at best and agents of Satan at worst. Much like Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, women are valued only for their ability to procreate, and are expected to be subservient to their husbands’ will. (The truly scary thing is that there are people who really think like this, in 2012, and some of them are even in charge of legislating. Shudder.) Into this frightful (and frighteningly-believable) world, we follow Hannah, a rule-abiding young woman…who has just had an abortion and been melachromed red for the crime of murder.
The few glimpses we get of the world outside Texas and Hannah’s small circle are tantalizing. Her friend Kayla, for example, is not nearly as sheltered as Hannah and has been able to date, attend college, and formulate her own views on religion. We hear that abortion is still legal in California and New York, and that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Canada have been served. I would love to see Jordan explore this world again, in more detail (sequel alert?). The ramifications of this hyper-religious U.S. would be so interesting to see, especially on a global scale. Have we been denounced by the U.N. as a human-rights violator? Have other countries filled the void we left as a superpower?
Overall, I very much liked being brought along on Hannah’s journey from shame and guilt to strength and empowerment. Many of the changes she experienced felt very natural, as her horizons broadened through the necessity of survival. Her musings about free will versus predestination were especially interesting, and I would have liked to hear more; her struggles to reconcile her religious beliefs with her new experiences was, I think, very true to what many sheltered individuals go through the first time they are confronted with proof that the world is not as straightforward as they were taught. While some reviewers did not like Jordan’s attempt to counterbalance the negatives of blind religious faith with the benefits of religion, I thought it was a nice touch. Hannah has been steeped in this type of thinking her entire life; even after all she’s been though, it’s much more realistic for her to try to find a way to adapt her religious views than abandon them altogether, at least right away.
A few things kept this from being a full four or five star book for me, however.
The first (and this will be a slight spoiler, so don’t read on if you want to read this book with entirely fresh eyes!) was the love scene between Hannah and Simone. I am adamantly pro-LGBTQ rights, and I do like when authors include issues of sexuality and gender in their novels, even if it isn’t the focus. I welcome characters who take hold of their own sexualities, and realize that there is a need for literary representation of LGBTQ individuals. But it just did not ring true for me in this instance, knowing what we know about these characters. If we had been given some inclination–any sign at all–of Hannah wondering about her own sexuality, even tentatively or furtively, previously to the love scene, I think I would have accepted it. But as completely unheralded as it was, it honestly felt gratuitous. Like two straight college girls making out in a sports bar. I do understand that sexualities are fluid, and hardly need to be justified, but when characters make entirely out-of-character decisions, it deserves some comment. (I feel like such a prude writing this, if you couldn’t tell.)
The second was that, while When She Woke was clearly designed to be a futuristic take on The Scarlet Letter, I don’t actually know what this book gained through that choice. I think it would have made for a stronger story if it had been allowed to stand on its own. It was distracting to have Hannah’s punishment doll-baby be named Pearl, to have her own name be the Hester Prynn-like Hannah Payne–almost like the author was nudging and winking at me each time, saying “See what I did there?”. Yeah, I saw, and I understand the connotations, but I like my allegories to be a bit subtler. (She said while reviewing the book where criminals undergo a skin dying procedure.) The homage was fine, but again, I think this story was interesting enough that it didn’t need to try to be a 23rd century version of The Scarlet Letter.
While fans of Margaret Atwood will enjoy When She Woke, and its premise and world-building are engrossing, it’s not the subtlest or most delicate treatise on religious freedom and sexuality. I believe it accomplishes what it set out to do, and would make a good companion read to A Handmaid’s Tale, but some of its shortcomings did pose some problems for me.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: Do you believe it was God’s doing?