Title:When She Woke: A Novel
Classification: Adult Fiction
Publisher: Algonquin Books; Reprint edition (September 18, 2012)
Format: Hardcover; 368 pages
Notes: Borrowed from the library.
"Hannah Elizabeth Payne, having been found guilty of the crime of murder in the second degree, I hereby sentence you to undergo melachroming by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to spend thirty days in the Chrome ward of the Crawford State Prison and to remain a Red for a period of sixteen years."
Hannah Payne has been convicted of murder. Her family and friends are shocked. A devoted member of her church, it seemed unfathomable that she could have aborted her own child. Years ago, the world was struck by a pandemic known as the Great Scourge that left the females who contracted a super strain of the clap sterile. As a result, the number of births reached an all time low. Nations around the world started instigating rules to ensure the survival of the human race. During this time in the United States, Roe Vs. Wade was reversed and as a result, having an abortion became a crime. A woman's right to choose no longer existed. Sanctity of Life (SOL) laws were established, and the division between church and state began to crumble as the two started working together to bring about more births. Woman were encouraged and pressured to have children. So aborting one was unthinkable. They were precious.
For her crime, Hannah has been sentenced to a new form of punishment--Melachroming. Melachroming is the process in which a virus is injected into a person which results in the pigment of his or her skin being altered to reflect the desired color. Those who are convicted of misdemeanours are colored yellow, those who convicted of murder are colored red, and those who are convicted of child molestation are colored blue. This stimulated a public type of humiliation as only part of their sentences were spent in incarceration. Once their sentence is complete, the process is reversed. The life expectancy of female Red on the outside is usually much shorter than their sentence. Most don't survive and are killed either by their own hand or the hand of others in a short period of time. Abandoned by family, friends, and the man that she loved, this is Hannah's story of survival.
*****Be forewarned this review contains some spoilers*****
This book won awards and many accolades, but I personally found it somewhat lacking. The author openly admits that the book is a sort of modernized versions of the Scarlet Letter, but that is only part of it. I felt like the author picked bits and pieces of other books and stories she liked and attempted to mesh them all together in this one, and I found it rather distracting. Hannah's escape to a safer place, reminded me of stories of the underground railroad. The discrimination we see as she tries to make her way in society reminded me of what was experienced by black people back when the Jim Crow laws were still in effect, although no such laws existed in the world Ms. Jordan created. Still, in another part of the book she again openly admits to taking a page from another book--Watership Down. Additionally, at one point, I had to wonder if perhaps the author got a little confused between her character Hannah and Nathaniel Hawthorne's character Hester Prynne. Hannah was convicted of murder whereas Hester was convicted of adultery. Yet for some reason the male characters in the book weren't scared by that fact. If anything it seemed to spur them on to think she was fair game for any and all sexual advances. I just didn't get it. Perhaps the author was trying to show how backwards society had become in regards to woman, but I was a little confused.
While I found the mishmash of ideas a little distracting, my real problem with the book came towards the end where I felt the whole story just sort of fell apart. People are helping Hannah escape to somewhere safe, putting their own lives at risk, and she has the gall to check her email? She's been told she needs to cut communication with her family and friends and she checks her email? Are you kidding me? Can you say dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb? If this society can monitor your moves with some nice footage via satellite trackers, I can't imagine they wouldn't monitor a convicted felon's emails especially if she is still serving out a portion of that sentence. All rights to privacy seem to have been forfeited, so I seriously doubt their emails wouldn't be monitored. And if that isn't bad enough, she stops for a quickie with her ex. This after having a lesbian love scene which came completely out of left field. Perhaps she was trying to make up for lost time while she was incarcerated? I don't know.
What I do know is that if I was a lesbian, I think I'd be a little upset at the portrayal of the only legitimate lesbian in the book who by all accounts was quite a smart young woman. One night with Hannah and she loses all perspective of what she's doing, and the woman who is very secretive, resourceful, and trusts practically no one lets her guard totally down, breaking her own rules which were set in place for a reason? Well, she used poor judgement where Hannah's concerned as the woman betrays that trust.
Overall, I'm giving this one a 1 out of 5 roses. While the beginning of the book was strong, and I thought the melachroming was an original and interesting idea, I didn't bond with the main character and the ending seemed to be created for pure sensationalism. At first I suspected Hannah had been victimized by the man whom she'd had the affair with, but we later find the woman has no shame or regrets for having an affair with a married man. She even at one point claims the affair must have been part of god's plan. Please. She's just a self centered person who puts herself first and foremost. That was reaffirmed throughout the story. When she had the chance to send a message to her father to let him know she was okay, he was the only one who stood by her throughout everything, she chose not to in favor of contacting her married lover. When she could have told someone about the abuse her sister was suffering, she told no one. The fact she recklessly got in touch with her ex so she could have a quickie was beyond selfish. She jeopardized the welfare of many. It left me with a feeling that the main character hadn't learned anything from her whole experience and while the world she lived in was extremely messed up, so was she. The story had potential, but for me it fell short. While I didn't hate the story, I definitely didn't like it either, hence the single rose rating.