I am dedicating my first book review on this blog to Hillary Jordan’s 2011 novel, When She Woke.
This fresh, dystopian work of art explores the concept of criminals being punished by the government’s ‘chroming’ system, rather than being put into rehabilitation. This means that the colour of their skin gets genetically altered in accordance to the crime they have committed. For instance, your entire body is coloured a vibrant red for murder and abortion (which is considered a crime in America at that time), blue for molestation, yellow for theft and so on. Then, once you are appropriately coloured, you are released back into the public and left to fend for yourself and fight for survival. You see, since anyone can distinguish your wrongdoing simply by the colour of your body there is no hiding from your previous actions, thus meaning that you are subject to hate and violence by the majority of society for your crime.
I picked up this book from a local charity shop back home after being intrigued by its blurb and distinctive cover. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I began reading it that I realised I have also read Jordan’s first novel, Mudbound, which made me super excited because I absolutely adored that one.
When She Woke focuses on Hannah Payne, a 26-year-old woman who has been raised by a family with extreme Christian views and beliefs. However, despite this upbringing, Hannah commits a sin by indulging in an affair with a married man. Not only this, but she also becomes pregnant with his child. After concluding that raising an illegitimate child in such a sticky situation is the wrong thing to do, she resorts to illegally aborting the baby at a secret, private clinic. However, she is almost immediately found out by the authorities and, because of the state’s ever-growing Christian beliefs and their failure to separate state and church, she is consequentially taken in to be chromed. The government render her a striking shade of red as her abortion is considered as murder. This life-changing punishment leads Hannah on to a path of self-discovery which forces her to question her values and everything she was once led to believe.
I refuse to say much more as I want to try refraining from spoilers; I would rather that you went into this story without too much knowledge of it and then came back and told me what you think, just like what I did!
However, I will disclaim that through this story, countless themes are raised. These include religion, reproductive rights, sexuality, feminism, race, power structures and everything else you could ask for in a novel. Despite how sensitive and delicate each of these subjects are, Jordan explores each of them with great care, detail and thought. In fact, her exploration even encourages the reader to ponder over the existence of God, our personal strength, the ‘humaneness’ of punishment and imprisonment, and much, much more.
I feel that the premise of this story is so clever and unusual, making it an incredibly strong read which cannot be compared to much else. I may have made my way through this novel extremely quickly, but that does not mean that it will be easily forgotten. This book, without a doubt, is one of my favourites and I think it will remain that way for a long time. Both that and Mudbound are literary works of art which deserve more credit than they are currently given. If I had a list of books which everyone should take the time to read at some point in their lifetime, I think I would now be inclined to mention When She Woke on it. It really does encourage you to question your own values and beliefs, and even society itself! And it never hurts to refresh your mindset.
Ultimately, this book receives a rating of 5/5 from me. I cannot fault it. Please take some time to read it and let me know what you think of it as I would love to know. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy this one…
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