Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family. But after she’s convicted of murder, she awakens to a nightmarish new life. She finds herself 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 color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime—is a sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red for the crime of murder. The victim, says 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 shared a fierce and forbidden love.

Pages: 352
Author: Hillary Jordan
Add It: Goodreads
Publisher: Algonquin
Rating: 2/5

How absolutely cool is the premise of this book? People's skin is genetically mutated a certain color to paint them as certain shades of criminal. Red skin means murderer. In this society, red skin also means someone who has had an abortion, a procedure that has been deemed illegal now that Roe V. Wade has been overturned. This novel had the potential to be as frightening as Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a novel that didn't seem entirely far fetched, and still does not in a world where women still have to fight for their right to have complete control over their bodies. I think books of this nature are especially important given the current fight over birth control that has cropped up as candidates fight to challenge Obama in this year's election. People like Rush Limbaugh really exist. There are groups of people out there who want a world like this one to be the one we live in. Books like this one are almost realistic fiction when you think about it like that. Terrifying.

The novel starts out strong. Hannah Payne has recently been transformed to become a Chrome, her skin mutated Red, to represent her crime of abortion. She must live her days on camera inside of jail, where her every move is being broadcasted to people at home for their entertainment. Experiencing with Hannah her first moments as a Chrome, alone in solitary, is deeply intimate. Because of her perceived crime Hannah is subjected to humiliation and psychological torture. It was very interesting and painful to be inside of Hannah's head as she dealt with this experience.

Hannah is soon released and dropped off in a religious facility aimed at "curing" women chromes and bringing them back to the light of Jesus or whatever. This section of the book actually wasn't half bad. There were some definitely great points made using Hannah's experiences in that facility; even if perhaps Jordan should not have been so heavy handed with the message and allowed the "evil" characters to be humanized a bit. A particularly frightening thing about this facility was that Hannah and others were forced to create and carry around dolls that represented the "child" they aborted.

Once Hannah leaves the facility things get a little far fetched. She joins a sort of underground program put in place by those that oppose the new government and after that it is one unbelievable situation after another. Hannah's narrative is also a little weird. She still considers herself a murderer even if she doesn't believe she deserves all of the ways she's been treated, and that is never resolved. I also didn't buy her loyalty to the father of her baby, or why she would put entire groups of people at risk just to see him one last time. Also, there is a brief segue into lesbianism that would have had more meaning if it had, well, meant anything at all and didn't seem to be just a convenient plot point to represent Hannah's supposed awakening.

I think this book would have been far better served if it had focused on Hannah being made an outcast by society as a whole, and the treatment she would have received trying to live a normal life as a Red.

I'm mixed on whether or not I'd recommend this one. It was a fairly enjoyable read, the idea of chromes was fantastic, the feminist themes were important, but in the end it fell short of everything it was trying to accomplish. I'd much rather recommend The Handmaid's Tale instead.


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