Sunday, 16 September 2012

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Hannah Payne lives in a dystopian version of America where conservative Christians are in control and criminals serve their sentences out in public, melachromed for easy identification.  Hannah has commited the crime of having an abortion (classified as murder) and for that, every inch of her skin has been dyed bright red.  Having spend some time on the Chrome Ward as part of a sinister reality TV programme, Hannah must now try to adapt to life as an outcast, subject to prejudice and abuse.  Her every movement can be tracked and she soon becomes a target for the Fist, a radical group that hunts out and punishes chromes.  With her family turning away from her, can Hannah adjust to her new life?

When She Woke is a modern retelling of the classic The Scarlett Letter.  Unfortunately, I've not read the latter so I can't judge how faithful to the original it was.  Hannah does refuse to name the father of her unborn child but this isn't as integral to the plot as I had imagined it to be.  When She Woke is more about the dystopia of Jordan's imagined American society than anything else.

It's hard to make a judgement of this book as the first and second halves are remarkably different.  The first half is about the society Hannah lives in and the reactions of her friends and family to her having the abortion, whilst the second is more action packed as Hannah struggles to escape the Fist.  I liked the first half but found the second implausible and a bit silly.  I was most interested in the psychological impact on Hannah - what would it be like to be branded forever as a criminal?  The passages where Hannah is free and trying to interact with members of the public were fascinating.

I think some of the impact of this book was dulled by me not being American.  I'm British and whilst some people here may feel strongly about abortion, it's not a large issue and definitely not a political one.  No one finds out whether our politicians are 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life' and it's rare to see a discussion or debate around abortion.  Had I been in America, where I know abortion is more highly charged, abortion equaling murder would have been more powerful.  Consequently I wanted to know more about Chromes that were different to Hannah - the blues, yellows and greens.  Were they treated differently than she was?

As I mentioned above, the second half of the book was a bit of a let down.  Hannah is targeted by a radical group and starts on an action packed journey to escape. I think Jordan is trying to portray Hannah's character growth as she starts to care less what others think of her but this comes across as rushed and unbelievable.  There's even the inclusion of a lesbian scene that seems completely out of character for Hannah,given that only a few months earlier she was regurgitating all her evangelical parents' beliefs as facts.  I truly hope the author wasn't associating feminism with lesbianism i.e because Hannah becomes a feminist, she must find other women sexually attractive.  Hannah would have changed, but not as fast as Jordan made her.

On the whole, the premise of When She Woke was stronger than the execution.  I'm still thinking about Chromes almost a week after finishing the book but the plot didn't measure up.  A thought provoking read.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2011
My Edition: Harper Collins UK, 2012
Score: 3 out of 5

30 comments:

  1. Despite you not being familiar with the original, you pretty much hit spot-on in this review. I read this a few months ago, and was surprised by a few things. First, that the first and second halves of the book were so different, and second, the whole lesbian scene that not only goes wildly out of character for Hannah, but diverges strongly from the original book (whereas the rest of the book stays almost TOO close to the original). I ended up paradoxically thinking the book was too close and too far a retelling, which is a weird contrast.

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    1. I had a feeling the second part wasn't based on the Scarlett Letter, it was too bizarre! Still want to read Hawthorne's book at some point.

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  2. I thought about picking this up, since I liked Mudbound so much, but something about the premise put me off. Thanks for the thoughtful, balanced review and for your thoughts on viewing the subject of this novel from a British rather than an American perspective. Do you think British society more secular than America, at least in the political arena?

    Though it sounds like this book definitely has strengths, especially in the first half, it doesn't sound like one I'd choose.

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    1. I have Mudbound sitting on my shelf, it seems like a very different book to this one! I do find Britain more secular and I think the % of actively religious people is much lower. Even amongst religious people, faith is a private thing, not something you would discuss/debate.

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  3. Wow, can't imagine a lesbian scene for a girl who was evangelical so recently! I think I would find this hard to love, too. The original novel is great, though!

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    1. I do want to read the original, Aarti. It's on my classics club list :)

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  4. It's too bad the execution didn't live up to the premise.

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  5. It surprises me a way, it was in recent years I came to a conclusion that the British society is more secular than the American's. I'm sitting on the fence on this issue. I think we can't help but read books through our cultural lenses and we feel affiliated more to the ones where the book's cultural context coincides with ours.

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    1. I think it is more secular, but also more private on the whole. We went to the Southern states on our honeymoon and faith is much more public there. I agree about feeling more positive about books that 'fit' our cultural lenses.

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  6. I've picked this book up a couple of times at the library but instinct has told me I wouldn't like it so I put it back. Reading your review I think it was the right decision!

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    1. That's why you should trust your instincts!

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  7. I really do agree with all you said. The second half jumps the shark way too much and I'm glad someone else had problems with the lesbian scene. And I think it's so sad that we Americans still make abortion a political issue and a huge divisional one at that.

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    1. I don't have problems with lesbian scenes in general, but I do when it seems wildly out of character.

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  8. I still think that I might want to read this one.

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  9. Oooh... I'm still quite intrigued by this one, because it sounds a lot like The Handmaid's Tale (in a way...) only not as good, but I like the whole genre and everything. Maybe I'll just read the first half and stop there haha!

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    1. It's a bit like the Handmaid's Tale, but the Handmaid's Tale is far better (it's one of my all time fave books). The first half really makes you think.

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  10. Every review I've seen has said the same; the first half is amazing and the second just kills it. That really is too bad because it sounds like such an interesting premise with so many places to go. While there's no way I can possibly fit it at this point in time, I still might consider it in the future. Bummer that it wasn't as great as it could have been. :(

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    1. It's very interesting to think about, and I'm glad I read it for that reason alone. But with so many great books out there and so little time, the second half means it's one I wouldn't strongly recommend to others.

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  11. The Handmaid's Tale (very strict Christian dystopian society) and Shades of Grey (by Jasper Fforde - people's worth marked by colour) immediately come to mind. The premise sounds good, but it is a pity that it fails a bit in its execution. Just like Britain, the Dutch are not really hung up about abortion. I mean, yes, there are those who object, but every woman has the right to abort her unborn foetus.

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    1. There are similarities with Handmaid's Tale, although I much prefer it to this book. I haven't read Shades of Frey, but want to. I think it's hard for those of us in more secular societies to understand why abortion is such a big issue in America.

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  12. I wonder if it would have been a better read if it had explored more about the culture and color punishments. Maybe instead of trying to flee in the second half, she gets to know the other Chromes and what they have been through.
    It's so difficult to make a decision on a book when it's so uneven.

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  13. I felt the same way about the Lesbian scene not fitting in with Hannah's character. I could see it fitting in more even if there had been a time lapse and the second half of the story was years later and we could see reasons why she had either changed or realized certain things about herself - it just seemed too abrupt. The abortion issue is certainly a heated topic over here in the US. Learning more about the other chromes would have given more depth, that's sure.

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  14. I really appreciated your perspective as a British blogger here. I need to make time for this read, as I keep hearing things about it, but I confess I didn't really know what it was about. This book seems particularly prescient to read during our current election cycle. While I absolutely see where it didn't work for you, I'm even more excited to read it now!

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  15. My book club felt the same way about the second half. I think it's interesting that the British don't make abortion a political issue, I had no idea. The book did make for a great book club discussion, though like you, I think it could have been executed better.

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  16. I read Mudbound, and enjoyed it, but it wasn't a huge favorite. I've not heard of this one, and I think I might enjoy it. Great thoughts!

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  17. Interesting and certainly thought-provoking. Even in Ghana, abortion is not much of an issue, though it is a criminal offence. When it ispurely for the health of the mother, then it is permissible. But the choice is more of a private and individual matter. A fine review, Sam.

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  18. 1. I want to read this..mostly because I very much enjoyed Mudbound
    2. I may have to move to the UK ;)

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  19. I actually loved this book. I do agree that the lesbian scene was a little far-fetched, but other than that I thought it was great. I wish I lived somewhere more secular and where abortion wasn't such an issue, but as an American this book actually hit pretty close to home, especially in the current political climate.

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