There are very few books that inspire this kind of reaction in me. I wasn’t even intending to read When She Woke, but I picked it up at the bookstore and was totally hooked (and disturbed) and I wound up finishing it in one day and did not get to bed until 4 a.m. I felt for the characters, I laughed at the funny bits, I was genuinely worried when things were not looking good. I’ve hardly stopped thinking about it in the days since finishing it. This is exactly how books are supposed to make the reader feel and I so rarely get that these days--the more I read, the more books are.... interesting, enjoyable, but not emotionally involving. And this one worked so perfectly for me in every way that it’s absolutely earned its five stars.
So: to get a bit more specific. The book is set in a near-future America. There’s apparently been a nuclear war with Iran, and an STD epidemic a la The Handmaid’s Tale. But the biggest change is the ascendency of evangelicals to political power--there’s a Minister of Faith, and abortion is criminalized as murder in almost every state. (Yeah, this book is probably going to appeal more to people on the left side of the political spectrum.) It’s still recognizably America though, not one of those dystopias that could as easily be another planet. Anyway, it’s a vision that feels very relevant to our time.
Enter Hannah, who grew up in an evangelical family but has always been a bit dissatisfied and just a little bit rebellious. She has an affair with her megachurch’s famous pastor, has an abortion, and finds herself convicted to 16 years as a “Chrome”--because this society has replaced prisons with dyeing people’s skin colors in accordance with their crimes. (More on that later.) I won’t describe the plot too much, but Hannah soon finds herself in danger and cut off from everyone she knows. It’s a fast-paced book but I hesitate to call it a “thriller”--the word has bad connotations with me; I take it to refer to books with lots of action and poor character development, books that are fun to read but eminently forgettable. This is not a gunfights-and-car-chases kind of book, although it’s often suspenseful. (There is one shootout but, sadly, we miss it.) As much as anything, it’s a book about a woman who’s had a very narrow upbringing, trying to figure out who she really is and what she believes in a world that’s far more complicated than her community is willing to admit.
And Hannah makes a great heroine. She’s human enough to identify with and a believable product of her upbringing, but tough enough to cheer for. She grows and changes, but not so much that you couldn’t see all along that she had that potential. She takes responsibility for herself and refuses to be a victim. When she wins other characters’ respect, their reactions seem genuine, not the author’s contrived way of telling us how we should feel about a character who isn’t all that special (as happens in some books). And she even has pretty good judgment.
And the other characters are also excellent. Hannah’s family members are very well-done, as they’re caught between caring about her and their inability (or unwillingness) to help her out of the circumstances she’s in. Kayla might look at first like she’s going to be the stereotypical black best friend providing comic relief, but is actually much more than that. Simone is pure awesome.
Otherwise, the author does a good job of weaving past events and information about the world into the story, and while not the most literary book I’ve ever read, it is well-written. Jordan does a good job with dialogue--you can tell from their speech patterns, for instance, that Kayla’s African-American and that Simone is a native French-speaker. Oh, and that one scene toward the end that so many people disliked? I thought it was awesome, and adequately foreshadowed. So there. There were indications that Hannah was bisexual but refused to admit it to herself--for instance, her immediate reaction to Kayla is "Oh WOW she's gorgeous".... which she then rationalizes to herself by thinking about how she's always appreciated all kinds of beauty. Sounds pretty closeted to me.
Only two things about this book left me a little less than thrilled. One is the way it deals with the idea of “chroming” criminals as punishment. There’s the Scarlet Letter parallel, obviously, but I’m not sure the book quite gives the idea the consideration it’s due--either because the comparisons the book draws between chromes and escaped slaves/African Americans (there are KKK and underground railroad equivalents) don’t allow for much moral ambiguity, or because, as at least one character seems to believe, the government forcibly coloring your skin is an invasion of personal autonomy analogous to the government’s making decisions about whether you can have an abortion, and therefore unacceptable. My problem with all this is that criminal justice is different. First, committing a crime isn’t the same as being a minority. Second, prison, too, means a loss of personal autonomy and dignity, means being subject to violence, means a degree of dehumanization.
To be fair, and contrary to what the bookjacket might lead you to believe, this isn’t a book that romanticizes prison at all, or even necessarily prefers it to chroming. But I wonder why an author would bother to invent such a future form of punishment, only to condemn it and without offering any workable alternatives. When the subject of chroming comes up, the book gets sidetracked with questions like: Do we so selectively condemn and absolve people based on our perceptions of what types of people are important that the criminal justice system is worthless? Do the significant disparities in sentencing based on race and class render the criminal justice system worthless? Do we overpunish, or is the problem that we’re punishing the wrong people? Human traffickers are running around with enhanced date rape drugs, but who cares about that when women are out there aborting innocent babies! And if you're occasionally violent toward anti-abortion activists, you're totally a terrorist on the FBI's most wanted list, but if you consistently go around beating up and killing chromes for fun, that's just fine, because who cares about criminals anyway? And so on.
Does the use of any dehumanizing type of punishment effectively mean that we’re condemning those individuals as worthless human beings, not just providing consequences for their crimes? These are thought-provoking questions and I think better of the book for raising them--but I also think that by raising them when the acceptability of chroming comes up, the book might give the impression that it’s really dealt with the idea of chroming when it hasn’t. But maybe that’s the point: that there are no easy answers. I'd love to discuss it with anybody else who's trying to figure out just what the book is saying about all this.
The other thing I wasn’t thrilled about was that the book ENDED. Dammit! Books like this don’t generally have sequels, but I for one really want to know what comes next in these characters’ lives.
So, this isn’t a book for everybody. All I can say is that I loved it, and I hope you do too.