Review: When She Woke; Hillary Jordan

Promising beginning but then loses its way towards the middle… 3.5 stars

Source- borrowed from a friend

Harper Collins- 2011

Paperback- 341 pages

I find that I am struggling for the right words to adequately review this novel. The opening few chapters were incredibly strong and powerful and drew me right into the story but then disappointingly, the plot started petering out somewhere towards the middle and for me, never seemed to pick up the pace again after that. I would almost concede that this is actually a book of two halves, with the beginning being far superior than the end.

The book tells the story of ‘good girl’ Hannah Payne, raised in a religious family with a very proper upbringing in a time not far into the distant future.  Society has changed immeasurably however- felons are no longer incarcerated long term for their actions but instead are chromed; meaning their skin is genetically altered to match their class of crime. Hannah’s crime: murder. The victim: her unborn baby. Waking in a confined room, with her skin red and her every move broadcast to millions of people as a sinister new form of entertainment, Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the baby’s father at all costs, even if it means endangering her own life in the process…

See? Fantastic sounding premise, isn’t it? I loved the notion of a long-term badge of shame and the ‘perpetrators’ being branded in different colours for the severity of their crimes, it was such a brilliant sounding concept and I was keen to see how the author would tackle it.

A wide range of issues were covered in this book- religion, politics, abortion, family, feminism, ethics and relationships (amongst others) and all were very thought-provoking, which appealed to me. I also appreciated how this book makes the reader consider how they too would act if placed in the same situation as Hannah. I think this comes down to the writing style which is quite matter of fact, almost dispassionate in a sense, thus allowing the reader to be a bit more objective, despite the overwhelmingly pro-choice stance of the author. There is absolutely no separation of the church from the state either and I found this controlling, heavy-handed ethos to be a bit forced and preachy as well, though that was clearly the aim of the plot and was done that way for a reason.

Another aspect that I didn’t feel was particularly balanced was how the themes taking place were addressed elsewhere- or the lack of this. The novel never really explores or even alludes to if what is happening is spread outside of the United States or not and it feels quite insular in this sense. Are similar things happening in the rest of the western world? What kind of impact is the chroming having there if so? Do the lines between religion and politics blur elsewhere? It would have been good to have this aspect fleshed out more.

Parts of this novel I found to be really compelling included Hannah’s time spent in the centre upon leaving prison. Some of the ideologies and punishments dished out there were incredibly chilling and elicited a real sense of sympathy towards Hannah’s predicament, possibly even more so than her time behind bars. Following on from this it would have been good to have more of a sense of Hannah trying to acclimatise to society upon leaving the centre and how she was reacted to by others.

Readers will undoubtedly compare this novel to The Scarlet Letter and allude to The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me, those books were far superior to this one. This is not a bad read by any stretch of the imagination, but it fell a bit short of my (possibly too high) expectations overall. I think I would have preferred to read more about Hannah trying to fit in with society given her new status as a red, than her prolonged effort in escaping to Canada.  Still, for those interested in reading controversial dystopian fiction, this is worth a look and it is admittedly a real eye-opening page turner, relevant in the sense that it forces us to question how we treat others within society.

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