Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When She Woke

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is very different from her first novel Mudbound, but it is every bit as well written and as hard to put down once you start to read it. Mudbound was set just after World War II, on a remote cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta, a farm often further isolated when it is surrounded by a sea of mud following a heavy rain. Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize for fiction, a prize founded by Barbara Kingsolver and awarded to a first literary novel that addresses issues of social justice. It focused on issues of war and bigotry, friendship and passion. If you have not read Mudbound, it is well worth reading. as is When She Woke.

"When she woke, she was red." We first meet Hannah Payne in prison, a woman convicted of murder, whose skin color has been genetically altered. She is a Chrome, one of the many criminals whose skin color matches the class of their crime. In the State of Texas, Hannah has murdered her unborn child and refused to reveal the identity of the father, a well-known public figure.

The reader follows Hannah back and forth in time. We learn the story of her love, the identity of the father of her child, and about her abortion and the consequences of that act. We get to know her family and friends. We travel with Hannah when she leaves prison, first to a sort of halfway house, the Straight Path Center, and, shortly thereafter, we follow Hannah as she tries to rebuild her life in a world hostile to her.

Reviewers have referenced Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, to which the parallels are clear. Also mentioned, in reviews, is the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood. Marge Piercy is another author who creates dystopian worlds and interesting female characters dealing with situations in which they would prefer not to be. Piercy has said "dystopian fiction asks the question: 'If this goes on, what is going to happen?' " and is "based on our actual observations about the way the world is, and how it appears to be developing."

Among the many issues affecting the characters and society are abortion, adultery, consequences of crime, prisons, faith, the relationship of church and state, and the role of women in society. When She Woke is riveting for the reader on many levels. The characters are varied. The situations are interesting, often unique. How it will end for Hannah is not clear. The book is set in a fascinating world, one that is frightening and different from our world, but describes a future not so difficult to imagine.

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