Dystopian fiction: not a big category for me. Re-working of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: also not such a draw. Why, then, did I fall for When She Woke? Because Hillary Jordan is such a crackerjack story teller.
Mind you, this is no Mudbound. It’s always interesting to see writers taking chances by doing something different, when the obvious path to market share is to repeat what works. Still — there’s a very big distance between that historical multi-voiced Mississippi saga and this near-allegory of life in a puritanical, futuristic United States. What links the two is Jordan’s sheer readability. When She Woke is not without its annoyances: some of the rhetoric is strident, some of the characterization thin. But if you pick it up, chances are that you will keep reading. Here’s the first sentence: “When she woke, she was red.” That’s tough to top.
“She” is Hannah Payne (HP=Hester Prynne, in case you need reminding). She has been “melachromed,” subjected to a procedure that dyes the skin of criminals. Her infraction — a sin, really — is that she had an abortion. Of course the earlier sin was having illicit sex, but Hannah is a plucky gal, constantly in trouble with the repressive evangelical Christian regime that runs her family, her church, Texas, and the country. If it hadn’t been the sex, her rebellion would have burst out somewhere else.
The novel is structured as a journey, as Hannah experiences — then rejects — the rehabilitation required by her society. When She Woke is so episodic that I wonder if Jordan didn’t even have a quirky version of Pilgrim’s Progress in mind. There’s a strong sense of movement, both physical and emotional; the drawback for me is that as Hannah passes through situations, she discards characters. Her family; her fellow Chromes in rehab; even her one plucky friend Kayla fall away as Hannah keeps moving forward — to Canada! Naturally! Our broad-minded border country still looms as a haven! I’m also of two minds about the love interest — Jordan keeps the novel in Hannah’s consciousness, so we see her longing for him, but, well, I didn’t think he was worthy of her.
Yet you couldn’t tear the book away from me. When I wasn’t reading it, I wanted to get back to it. Maybe a contradiction in terms, but When She Woke is a dystopian page-turner.