When She Woke
by Hilary Jordan
Algonquin Books, 2012. 344 pgs. Fiction
Jordan (Mudbound, 2009) continues to write socially conscious fiction, this time setting her story in a dystopian future instead of the Deep South.
Hannah Payne awakes to find her skin a bright, garish red. She’s been branded a murderess for the next sixteen years of her life, but before she can even get to that point she must survive thirty days of confinement with no entertainment but her daily shower and a bible. She reflects on her scandalous, seductive affair with Reverend Aiden Dale and the circumstances which necessitated her secretly contacting an abortionist. In Hannah’s society, women’s rights have been stripped away as a result of a sterilizing plague that swept the world, and abortion is no longer viewed as a choice, but punished as infanticide.
After her initial incarceration, Hannah is released into a halfway house for non-violent female Chromes, falling under the power of the sadistic Mr. and Mrs. Henley. The extreme measures this couple goes through to bring their charges back to the path of God helps Hannah begin to question whether she deserves such treatment. Her questioning takes her and her newfound friend, Kayla, to a sect of underground of feminists seeking to assist female chromes accused of abortion. As interesting as they may seem, the intricacies of chroming and the plague become a mere backdrop midway through the book as the story of Hannah’s journey towards empowerment takes hold. Jordan’s willingness to tackle women’s rights issues makes When She Woke an important and relevant work, but the overt way she inserts her pro-choice politics into the storyline can be distracting.
Reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Scarlet Letter, this story treads familiar ground, but Jordan’s modern take and lush prose are well worth reading.