Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke
By Hillary Jordan
352 Pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books

Hannah Payne awakens alone in a white room filled with cameras, her every move being broadcast to the world in order to provide a revolting sort of entertainment for the American public. The only color in the room is her skin, which is bright red. She is a criminal convicted of the murder of her unborn child and sentenced to melachroming, an insidious procedure where the skin of the convicted is dyed in a color corresponding to their crime. She has refused to name the father of her child – Aiden Dale, a well-known and much loved (not to mention quite married) televangelist – and as a result she is punished even more harshly by having years added to her sentence. When She Woke is the story of a young woman struggling with the choices she’s made and the future she faces in a world where she can no longer hide her guilt. It is literally written all over her face.

This is another book that I wasn’t entirely convinced that I wanted to read. The premise sounded interesting but I felt like I needed a bit of a break from dystopian novels. Nearly every YA I’ve picked up since The Hunger Games has been dystopian, partially because of the avalanche of those type of books that has followed in the wake of THG and partially because, well, I like what I like. After seeing nearly every review or blog I came across have nothing but glowing praise for it and after reading that it was a modern take on The Scarlet Letter, though, there was no way I wasn’t picking it up. And you know? I am so glad that I did.

First and foremost, I really liked Hannah. As I have said before, if there is one thing that can draw me into a book or push me away completely, it’s my feelings about the protagonist. Particularly when the protagonist is female. Hannah went from happily in love to rock bottom, and much like her literary predecessor Hester Prynne, she is a survivor. She has to learn to let go of the life she lived before – of her friends, her family, the love of her life. Her mother casts her out and her sister Becca, although she obviously still loves Hannah and would like to have a relationship with her, is married to a controlling and abusive man who forbids her from having anything to do with Hannah. To contact Aiden would be to risk his life as well as her own, and frankly, she’s not sure she could face him anyway. She is, with the exception of her new friend and fellow Chrome Kayla and some clandestine assistance from her father, completely alone in the world.  Add to the fact that her skin is red and broadcasts her crime to the world like a siren, and she’s in a bad situation but she manages to keep it together and carve out a life for herself.

Even most of those who offer to help Hannah are dangerous in one way or another, from the prison guards to cab drivers to those who run safe houses that take in Chromes. One of these so-called “helpful” people is possibly one of the most vile and despicable characters I can remember from any book, ever. Just an absolutely evil and shudder-worthy person in the guise of a helping hand. I actually found one scene physically difficult to read because this woman’s behavior was just so horrific, and it is not often that a fictional character is able to literally make my flesh crawl. Hillary Jordan has a knack for creating villains that hide behind the masks of upright citizens.

I also really enjoyed all of the little parallels to The Scarlet Letter – Hannah Payne vs. Hester Prynne, Aiden Dale vs. Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl vs. er…Pearl, etc. I read read The Scarlet Letter in high school and once since, and I really enjoyed it. I’m sure I missed tons of little references, and it made me want to read TSL again to see if I could pick up more.

I don’t imagine there are many YA readers who haven’t read this one yet, but if you fall under this category, pick it up as soon as possible. If you’re an adult and leery of reading YA, don’t be. Like many YA novels, When She Woke deals with themes that are quite adult. The only type of reader I can see possibly not enjoying this is someone who is an extremely conservative Christian/pro-lifer, as the book could possibly be construed as having a pro-choice slant and that may rub some the wrong way. I didn’t read it so much as a pro-choice manifesto as a comment on the choices given and taken away by society/loss of freedoms, but YMMV. I think it’s possible that people will take many different things away from this book. One last comment – I rarely care one way or another about the cover of a book, but I really loved this one. So simple but very appropriate.

Highly recommended.

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