Other reviews will tell you that Hillary Jordan’s second novel When She Woke is a futuristic re-telling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with overtones of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While that’s a good strategy for selling books, and a nice shorthand for giving potential readers an idea of the tone and feel of the story, it’s not quite true. Jordan uses The Scarlet Letter as a jumping off point for creating her own story in a world that’s as frightening as it is different from Atwood’s Gilead.
When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.
From the first sentence, Jordan captures you. She uses strong, gut wrenching imagery to paint a picture of a religiously controlled United States in the not-so-distant future. When She Woke is the story of Hannah Payne, a young woman who convicted of having an abortion. In Jordan’s U.S., criminals are “chromed,” a process in which they are injected with a chemical that changes the color of their skin. They are required to serve thirty days in detention that is broadcast live nation-wide as reality television, and then they are released into the general population, wearing their color as a public badge of shame for the remainder of their sentence. Yellows are petty criminals serving short terms for misdemeanors; greens are thieves; blues are child molesters; reds are murderers.
In a recent author talk I was able to attend, Jordan said she got the idea from a discussion that she’d had with her uncle many years ago. He’d remarked that drugs should be legal and provided by the government, but they should turn you bright blue, “So the rest of the world could know what they’re dealing with.” In When She Woke, Jordan uses that idea to explore the stigmatization that would undoubtedly result.
To be sure, there’s a lot going on in Jordan’s America. A national health crisis when protagonist Hannah was young turned the country ever more toward the kind of radical, religious right agenda that we already see and hear from some folks today. Her story has a lot of interwoven parts: radicalism, personal religion, government control, uncertainty about who you can trust. But despite the complexity, it’s a fast-paced, enjoyable read. The blurb on the back calls it “unputdownable,” which is the perfect made-up word to describe it.
I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a gripping, surprising ride. I will warn that there is some seriously questionable, uncomfortable therapy depicted that would be unethical by many standards. And there are incidents of human trafficking and a “creepy rape drug,” as Jordan called it in her author talk; thrall is the pharmaceutical equivalent of Harry Potter’s Imperio, with far scarier implications for the women under its control. The book certainly tackles dark and difficult subject matter, especially for its readers who are women, but it is an interesting exploration of a future that may not be as out of reach as we’d hope.