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Fiction Review: When She Woke

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Book By Book

Back in 2010, I read Mudbound, an award-winning historical novel by Hillary Jordan and loved it (and read it again for book group in 2019 – review here). So when Jordan published a second novel, When She Woke, I got it in 2011 as soon as it came out in paperback. And then … it sat on my shelf! I can’t explain why it took me so long to finally read it, but I’m glad I did. This future dystopian novel that riffs on A Scarlet Letter, with hints of The Handmaid’s Tale, is entirely different than Mudbound but just as compelling and well-written.

“When she woke, she was red.”

So begins the story of Hannah, a young woman in near-future Texas. In her society, all but the most violent criminals get their skin dyed a color to match their crime, to relieve prison overcrowding. Red means murder. Hannah spends her first month as a “red” in a small, transparent cell, with a live feed that people watch for entertainment, as she tries not to go mad from the isolation and boredom. While there, Hannah thinks back to the events that landed her there: her illicit love affair with a married man and her illegal abortion to protect his identity in a world where genetic testing is routinely carried out so that fathers will support their children. She also remembers her innocent past before she met the man, growing up in a very sheltered family, among a strict religious community. She is a seamstress who used to work for a bridal salon, and before the affair, her worst crime was secretly sewing beautiful (but not properly modest) dresses for herself, to wear in private. Now, after a month in the cell, she is released to the wider world, to begin her new life with red skin. Her mother refuses to speak with her, and her sister’s controlling boyfriend won’t let her contact Hannah, so she is almost alone in the world. Strangers avoid her on the street or openly harass her. Her father tries to help by sending her to a sort of halfway house, focused on reforming its female criminal residents. Hannah has a long road ahead of her, making a new life for herself and considering for the first time ever, what she thinks, apart from her family and church.

That’s just the very beginning of the novel because I don’t want to spoil this gripping tale filled with so many unexpected twists and turns. It is suspenseful and compelling but also immersive, as the reader inhabits Hannah’s mind and sees everything through her eyes. Jordan has created an imaginative dystopian world here that, like the best dystopian fiction, is firmly rooted in our real world. Chillingly, some of the details she includes–like the pervasiveness of reality TV and the overturning of Roe v. Wade–have come to pass in our real world in the 12 years since the book was published. That rooting in the real world makes this novel very thought-provoking; it would be perfect for an open-minded book group discussion. Hannah is an absorbing main character and heroine, struggling against not only her sentence but over 20 years of indoctrination and being told not to think for herself. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this engrossing, original novel–it was worth the wait!

341 pages, Algonquin Books

Highbridge, Recorded Books

This book fits in the following 2023 Reading Challenges:

Mount TBR Challenge (this should count extra after sitting on my shelf for 12 years!)

Diversity Reading Challenge

Literary Escapes Challenge – Texas

R.I.P. Challenge

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