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Hillary Jordan – When She Woke

December 19, 2011

156. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2011)

Read By: Heather Corrigan
Length: 10h 46m (352 pages)

Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi

Started: 17 November 2011
Finished: 29 November 2011

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I really enjoyed Hillary Jordan’s first book, Mudbound, and I’d heard a lot of people enjoyed this one just as much.

Move over, Kermit:
In this future world, it’s not
easy being red.

Summary: When She Woke is a dystopian retelling of The Scarlet Letter, but in this case, the “A” doesn’t just stand for adultery, but also abortion, and the scarlet is not just a piece of fabric, it’s the sinner’s skin color. In the future that When She Woke presents, non-violent lawbreakers are punished by “chroming”: a viral injection that pigments the skin according to the nature of the crime. Murder – which now includes abortion, due to the combination of a theocratic government and a plague that caused widespread infertility – results in a sentence as a Red. Hannah was raised as a devout Christian, and always believed premarital sex, not to mention abortion, was a sin. But when she falls in love with and is eventually impregnated by the charismatic leader of her church, she aborts their child rather than risk ruining his career. But when she must face the hostility and violence that the world reserves for Chromes – particularly Reds – she begins to question whether her faith, and her love, were ever real, or really worth it.

Review: The reason this book is getting so many stars from me is not because it was an enjoyable read. Far from it, in fact – I had a really hard time listening to it, often having to turn it off after only a half an hour because it was making me anxious, claustrophobic, and upset. I have a hard time with characters I care in horrible situations that they’re powerless to escape, and that’s exactly what a lot of this book is. Jordan’s very good at ratcheting up the tension even in scenes that should be relatively benign, and it really hit me on a very visceral level. I think I was also upset by how easily I could imagine our world becoming that world; I know that there are a not-insignificant number of people in this country that would think the world of When She Woke is not a dystopia at all.

So, was this book enjoyable? No. Was it effective? Hell yes. And I think that for an author to be able to elicit that level of reaction from me, without stepping over the line where I give it up entirely (see: Blindness), is a masterful balancing act. I was impressed when I read Jordan’s first book, Mudbound, at how much power she could pack into her prose, and the same is absolutely true in When She Woke; each word is clearly very carefully chosen, and even the simplest of them could have a devastating effect.

I also thought her world-building was superb; I particularly liked how she incorporated small details about the wider world: plausible extrapolations about the future world, in context, and as supporting details, while keeping the focus on Hannah and her struggles. And while it’s been at least a decade since I’ve read The Scarlet Letter, so I can’t do a direct comparison, I thought her use of the various story elements was quite clever, and also used in the service of an extremely compelling story. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Fans of dystopian novels should definitely check this one out, but I also think this would appeal to readers who wouldn’t touch most sci-fi with a ten-foot-pole. It’s got the same powerful prose and discomfiting story as Mudbound… it’s just looking into the near future instead of the recent past.

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First Line: When she woke, she was red.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2011 9:43 am

    I think you’re absolutely right, one of the most disconcerting things about this book is how easily the world we live in now could be like this. I mean, the chrome dyeing part is out there, but the idea of publicly branding criminals and making abortion murder is not entirely far-fetched. I liked this book a lot, and while I don’t think I had as visceral reaction as it sounds like you did, I definitely found it scary.

    • December 26, 2011 12:40 pm

      Kim – I tend to react really strongly to things (books, tv shows, etc.) where basically decent people are put in inescapable situations where everyone is being horrible to each other. (I still have a really hard time watching the Battlestar Galactica episode “Pegasus”, for example.) It got better as the book went on, but during the early parts, like in the PATH center, I could really only listen for half an hour at a time before I had to switch and listen to something more cheerful.

  2. December 19, 2011 12:01 pm

    The main reason I haven’t picked this up is because it sounds disturbing. It’s good to know that going in I guess. I will say though that it does sound interesting but I’m not sure it’s something I want to read.

    • December 26, 2011 12:41 pm

      Amy – It’s not a pleasant book, by any measure, but I think sometimes it’s good for us to be a little disturbed. As long as you’re forewarned!

  3. December 19, 2011 1:27 pm

    This book was definitely disturbing! I am glad that I read it.

    • December 26, 2011 12:42 pm

      Kailana – I am too; if nothing else, it serves as a reminder to make sure that things never get like that.

  4. Cassie permalink
    December 19, 2011 2:53 pm

    I’ve been so wanting to read this. I’m even more interested now! Thanks for this.

    • December 26, 2011 12:42 pm

      Cassie – I hope you enjoy it as much (well, find it as interesting) as I did!

  5. December 19, 2011 3:13 pm

    It sounds like this is a powerful, emotional book. It sounds like the writing is excellent and I really want to read it now!

    • December 26, 2011 12:43 pm

      BermudaOnion – Jordan’s really an excellent writer; while her books aren’t always about topics that would normally jump to the top of my list, her writing’s good enough to put her on my “to read” list.

  6. December 22, 2011 11:23 pm

    Oh my goodness, Blindness definitely had some horrid scenes that stuck with me! I thought When She Woke was very good and only had a few minor issues with it.

    • December 26, 2011 12:45 pm

      Alyce – Blindness is one of the very, very few books that I’ve given up part way through, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t interested, it was because I couldn’t force myself to keep pushing through all of the horribleness. (And from what I’ve heard, I think I quit before some of the *really* horrible stuff happened. No thanks.)


  1. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan | Josephine's Readers Advisory

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