Friday, July 08, 2011

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

I had the good fortune to have Ms Jordan "visit" my book club when we read Mudbound a couple of years ago. She told us about her next novel, which then had a working title of Red. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting its release. The Summer ALA Convention netted me an uncorrected proof, now titled When She Woke. I immediately moved it to the top of my TBR pile.

When I finished part one, I was nervous. I thought the main character’s name, Hannah Payne, a bit too obvious parallel to Hester Prynne, but I liked Reverend Aidan Dale's name. I hoped the name Pearl would not pop up, but when it appeared, I realized the single use of “Pearl” represented a turning point in Hannah’s life. All my trepidations about the parallels with Hawthorne melted away.

My list of dystopian novels I really admire runs pretty thin: Handmaid's Tale is the gold standard. Atwood really gets into Offred's mind. McCarthy’s The Road is a close second. Updike's version of The Scarlet Letter in three parts represents a rare retelling of a classic I love and admire. But, as I approached the final chapter of When She Woke, I knew Jordan measured up to these standards. I could hardly put it down.

Hannah Payne has committed what her family and church view as an unspeakable crime. With the death penalty abolished, convicted criminals are “chromed” the color of their crimes. Hannah has, in society’s view, murdered an unnamed child, and thus, when she wakes, she is entirely red. She will serve only 30 days in prison for a period of acclimation. When released, she will reenter the world as an outcast, a pariah of the worst sort. She will get no sympathy – even from her own mother, and she will be barred from employment and residence in most places. Businesses will refuse to serve her, and strangers will treat her as a wild, rabid animal. Hannah will have virtually no protection from, or recourse for, such treatment.

Jordan has created a setting in Texas, which is chillingly similar to the way far too many people I know would like Texas and the United States to be -- submissive women, all reproductive freedoms squashed, and fundamentalist Christians ruling most aspects of people’s lives. One character moves to Washington to join the president’s cabinet as the Secretary of Faith! I had a creepy feeling when Crawford, Austin, Dallas, Plano, and the fortunately fictional “creation museum” in Waco were mentioned.

Into this disturbing landscape, Jordan has planted several orchids -- scenes of quiet, gentle, pleasant intimacy that carried me above the horror of the society which entrapped Hannah.

As the novel progressed, the tension and the excitement mounted. It literally took me four hours to read the last 60 pages – fear struck me about possible endings I did not want to see. When I finally reached the last page, I closed the book and cried.

After my experience with Mudbound, I did not think Jordan could match that novel for the sheer power of the story, the wonderful characters, and the setting. I was prepared for disappointment – but secretly, I hoped for another triumph, and she has done it.

Unfortunately, I cannot quote from an uncorrected proof, but the novel is due for publication in October. I will buy a copy and insert some quotes into this review and re-post. This will definitely be at the top of my list for best reads of 2011. I cannot imagine anything better.

--Chiron, 7/8/11

1 comment:

France said...

When She Woke is a modern The Scarlet Letter. Hannah Payne is 25 years old and has been given a virus coloring her red as a sentence for obtaining an abortion. Abortion and women's right to self determintation are but two themes, the other being shame and how we treat those found guilty of a crime. I loved when Hannah realizes that shame does not create positive change in a person's behavior, rather it enfeebles them, making them feel like thee is very little they can do to improve their lot in life and that they are not worthy of love or second chances.

I highly recommend both When She Woke and Mudbound.