Review: When She Woke — Hillary Jordan

Read: 40
To Go: 60

Book List:
31. Solaris — Stanislaw Lem
32. The Waste Land, Prufrock, and Other Poems — T.S. Eliot
33. The Singles — Meredith Goldstein
34. The Notebook — Nicholas Sparks
35. If You Were Here — Jen Lancaster
36. The Creeper — Tania Carver
37. The Surrogate — Tania Carver
38. Lethal — Sandra Brown
39. Before I Go To Sleep — S.J. Watson
40. When She Woke — Hillary Jordan

Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family. But after she’s convicted of murder, she awakens in a new body to a nightmarish new life. She finds herself lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes — criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime — is a sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red for the crime of murder. The victim, says the State of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure, with whom she shared a fierce and forbidden love.

To start: this cover is absolutely gorgeous. When I saw it in Chapters a couple of months ago it just struck me and I had to pick it up. And I’m so glad I did: I’ve never felt as personally connected to a story as I did to Hillary Jordan’s novel. 

When She Woke, a dystopian story set in the mid-21st century, is both a reimagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and, I would say, an extrapolation of the current wave of radical conservativism the U.S. (and even Canada) has been experiencing. In my mind, it is an essential read for a myriad of reasons: it’s every woman’s story; it is a powerful argument for the definite separation of church and state; it showcases the problems with politicizing love, faith, and reproductive health; and it points to a faith that can be questioned and a loving God that does not cast out anyone. It is as beautiful as it is terrifying.

At first blush, When She Woke hardly seems to be representative of “every woman’s story,” but I think at its core, it really is. Throughout the book, Hannah starts to question the bubble she grew up in, which taught her that a woman should feel shame for her body, should not be free-thinking, will always come second to man, and that to make a decision about what’s right for her body and her situation (i.e. having an abortion) is a capital offence. In her Red state, she’s treated as nothing more than an object to be taken, killed, or raped — the death rates for female reds are much higher than for their male counterparts. Hannah’s experiences throughout the novel are representative of what scores of women go through every day: being shamed for the body they had no control over; having their intelligence belittled and called unattractive; having their right to reproductive health constantly undermined; and being afraid to walk down the street. Hannah, like so many other women, is robbed of simple human rights; Hannah is every woman.

I think what spoke to me the most throughout the text, though, was Hannah’s ability to find a balance between her faith and her newfound feminism. There always seems to be a separation between being a feminist and being a spiritual or religious person — religion is all too often associated with its loudest and most bigoted, misogynist trumpeters — but Hillary Jordan was unwilling to fully separate the two. I loved that When She Woke offered the promise of being someone who believes in God, but also believes in fundamental human rights. It is possible to be both.

When She Woke was breathtaking, beautiful, intelligent, heartrending. There are  so many more adjectives I could use, but they’ll never fully encompass how much I loved this book. It was phenomenal.

Next book: The Winter Palace — Eva Stachniak

– Kelsey

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