Many novels search for that elusive hook in the first paragraph of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ is pretty hard to beat. Hilary Jordan’s novel, ‘When She Woke’ first paragraph, ‘When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.’ is a brave attempt.
‘When She Woke’ is American author Hillary Jordan’s second book but her first work that falls within the boundaries of SF. The protagonist, Hannah Payne, lives in a near future and not-too-implausible Christian Fundamentalist version of the USA. Hannah has always tried to conform to her religious upbringing but, despite her efforts, she is not the model child. Now Hannah finds herself in a situation to which modern readers might be able to sympathise, but which the society she lives in cannot tolerate.
The book’s dynamic opening occurs when young Hannah Payne awakes following administration of her punishment for having an abortion and thereby being convicted of second degree murder. As oppose to a prison sentence, Hannah is ‘chromed’, a term the author uses as a metaphor for the process of genetically programming the skin to take on pigment. After being chromed red, the colour of murder, Hannah is released back into society which then treats her as it sees fit, thus making the punishment fit the crime. This is often simply `good folk’ ignoring the chromed and looking down their nose at them but can, at worst, lead to violence committed against chromes by righteous feeling fanatics. Eventually, the chroming wears off at the end of the sentence, but the book does imply that not many convicts make it that far, although the book does not give us any further insight here.
The first part of the book gives us the back story in flashback while Hannah reflects on it during the thirty days she is incarcerated before being released. This covers Hannah’s falling in forbidden and secret love with a well-respected and married minister, who reciprocates her feelings. They consummate this love after sufficient soul-searching and realising their love to be true, but this leads to Hannah’s becoming pregnant. Hannah’s wish not to expose the minister, drives her to desperately seek an abortion from a hidden underground doctor. The flashbacks also gives an overview of recent American history which shows us how society has turned to the Fundamentalist. Throughout this, we get the feeling that Hannah’s childhood in a suburban religious family had her often asking awkward questions where she is supposed to blindly accept. After all, her inability to accept that Noah’s Ark must also have carried examples of the known dinosaurs alongside all the other animals during a trip to the creationist museum results in a rebuke from her mother to ‘stop asking so many questions.’ Sometimes, the flashbacks give a poignant contrast between the innocence of childhood and the realities of grown-up things like abortion, but I found myself tiring of the technique after a while and was glad when the second part started with Hannah’s release into society.
The next section is the best, having the greatest emotional impact. It deals with Hannah’s attempts to continue to conform with the Christian Fundamentalist ideal. She enters the Straight Path Center, a kind of half-way house for chromed women. To quote her father, ‘Non-violent Reds, as well as Yellows and Oranges. They don’t accept Blues, Greens or Purples. I wouldn’t send you there if they did.’ Blues have been convicted of crimes against children, Greens are violent crimes, but the novel never reveals what Purples have been convicted of. Here, she befriends Kayla, a fellow red. Jordan does a good job of making sympathetic characters out of the other chromes and the reader has little trouble understanding their motivations. Given their status, the treatment these women receive can be considered harsh at best and downright inhuman in some cases, as Jordan introduces us to the potential abuses of position that can occur in individuals with authority, but without accountability. It is notable that the other convicts Hannah meets here are almost uniformly more humane than the righteous characters running it.
Following this section, the novel coasts somewhat, losing the emotional punch of the earlier sections. The last part of the book deals with Hannah’s mental and physical journey towards redemption. She encounters various rebellious and nefarious situations as she escapes from the restrictions of conforming as expected. At a time of peril when Fundamentalist Christian activists are attacking her, she is contacted by Simone, a member of a secret rebellious underground. These rebels pass troubled chromes from cell to cell until they reach a haven in more moderate Canada. Encouraged by her new friends, Hannah questions her faith, discovers more in life and goes through fire and water to find solace in places and peoples she would never have dreamed possible.
None of the latter parts of the book can live up to the strength of that second section. It is almost as if Jordan has had a great idea for a story, but isn’t sure where to go with it. In the end, the conclusion feels anti-climactic and weak. Also, there is a kind of bizarre tacked-on happy ending, which seems out of place given the boldness of earlier parts of the book.
Initially, the overall theme of this novel seems to be one of religious intolerance, but I came to realise by the end that the theme has more to do with understanding who you are and accepting yourself by your own values and not by judging yourself against others’ hypocritical standards.
I found the actual text to be easily read and the pacing felt urgent. It is a good book, but not as good as it might have been. If the invention and commitment of the first 150 pages was sustained then the hyperbole from the press release might be better suited. As things stand, this is a thoughtful and enjoyable book that speaks well of Jordan’s future output.
(pub: Harper Collins. 342 page hardback. Price £12.99 (UK) or Ebook £9.99, $24.95 (US) or Kindle $8.08. ISBN: 978-0-00-746174-5)
check out website: http://www.harpercollins.co.uk