Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

From the back of the book: Bellwether Prize winner Hillary Jordan’s provocative new novel, When She Woke, tells the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed―their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes―and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.

In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.

So. This book was published in 2011, but it's pretty on the nose in terms of the current political climate. A new political party called the Trinitarian Party has taken power, and the separation between church and state has been completely dissolved and Roe v. Wade overturned. As the book opens, we learn that Hannah has discovered as she wakes up that her skin has been turned red, which publicly designates her as a murderer. In this case, she has had an abortion and has refused to publicly identify the baby's father. 

Because "chromes"--those whose skin has been changed colors in accordance with their crimes--have a difficult time surviving in the real world, Hannah goes to a halfway house run by a very fundamentalist religious group, who seems intent on shaming Hannah in order to get her to "walk the narrow path", and I'd argue that her experience there was filled with really disturbing mental and emotional abuse. Later, she ends up connected with a group of militant feminists who are attempting to help Hannah escape to Canada to have her chroming reversed.

Regardless of your politics, the first half of the book is a strong dystopian novel that's reminiscent of both The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid's Tale. However, the second half of the book missed the mark for me--it felt cliche, designed almost entirely to give women in book clubs something to talk about. Click the Show/Hide button below if you don't mind a few spoilers that describe what I'm talking about more specifically.

It wasn't a *bad* book, it was just off to such a strong dystopian start that the second half really felt that much more cliche and awful. So, while the first part of the book started out as a 5 star book for me (you all KNOW I love dystopian lit), by the end I was feeling much more like:

Just read The Handmaid's Tale instead. For real.

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