Book Review: When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan

I’ve often considered Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to be one of the foundational works in dystopians that probe into the possibility of a society where conservative Christian rhetoric has dominated society and women are subjugated, with a sharp curtailment of reproductive rights. It’s a book I keep coming back to over and over again because at the same time it terrifies and infuriates me, it’s also a hauntingly well-written book, and a sharp look into a possible future that could lie ahead for us if we don’t take action. It is a distinctly political issue book, but one which manages not to get dragged down with polemic and self-awareness, which can be a difficult balancing act to strike.

When She Woke is a successor, of sorts, a text that clearly owes a great deal to Atwood, but also stands on its own as a new statement in a new era. It, too, is about the rise of extreme conservative rhetoric, but it probes more into extreme evangelical Christianity in a world where abortion is strictly outlawed and criminals are punished with a treatment called melachroming, where genes are introduced to change the colour of their skin. In a brightly colour-coded world of right and wrong, Chromes are easy to spot, and their sins are written not just on their skin but in their identification cards and papers, which anyone can access.

Our heroine, Hannah, is a red: the worst kind of Chrome. She’s a murderer.

Jordan says she was inspired by The Scarlet Letter when she wrote this book, and there’s definitely some of that in here. Hannah lives in a world where people are very harshly judged under an extremist version of Christianity, and she’s punished by being forced to wear a public marker of her crime because she loved, and lost, and was forced to make a difficult choice. Knowing that having a child out of wedlock would result in severe penalties, she chose abortion, and she was caught. Now, she’s caught in a world where the consequences could be extreme, because Chromes are viewed as targets for all manner of social abuses, and she’s caught the eye of an extremist organisation that prefers a more permanent, and extrajudicial, approach to people like her.

Much of When She Woke explores the inner conflict within the evangelical movement, and the flaws of leaders and authorities who obtain power and then become consumed with greed as they exercise it. Her lover is the pastor of a megachurch, a man with a life and a career as well as a marriage at stake if she outs him, while the halfway house she enters after leaving the Chroming facility turns out to be run by a sadistic and horrific woman and her husband who torture the inmates in the guise of helping them ‘find their way.’¬†All of the people in her life seem trapped by the rhetoric of the church and its utter conflict with their actual lives; there is little evidence of a merciful G-d or a life worth living, at times, in Hannah’s United States.

Catapulted into a dangerous journey in search of safety, Hannah is forced to reevaluate all of her assumptions and beliefs about faith and how the world works, as well as the people around her. It makes for a moving and compelling read that, like Atwood’s, doesn’t need to belabour the point it is making. Jordan allows the story to tell itself without interfering, and the reader immersed in the tale inevitably is forced to ask a lot of the same questions Hannah does about whether politicising religion, and sanctioning a high level of interference between church and state, is necessarily a good thing.

This makes for a particularly stark read right now, with reproductive rights under attack across the United States from conservative evangelicals who often use religious arguments as part of building their cases for limiting access to abortion or outright trying to ban it. All of these laws dehumanise women and attempt to turn a medical procedure into a crime, but more than that, they constitute unreasonable injection of religious doctrine into government policy. Faith-based concerns about when life begins and whether abortion is murder do not belong in the halls of government, yet that’s exactly where they’re appearing, and they show no sign of going away.

When She Woke explores what could happen if this slow but rising tide crests and comes to completion; it is a chilling look at a country where people are forced to seek dangerous underground abortions, where providers are at risk as much as their patients. It is a frightening world where equal rights for women is a filthy and horrific concept, and where attempts to explore and question faith are viewed with suspicion. Where young women are raised to be silent and plain, to refuse to ask questions and to prepare for their eventual fates as wives and nothing more, their bodies mere vessels for sperm and foetuses.

As a standalone dystopian, it makes for a great read, but as a political commentary, When She Woke is simply amazing. I’m only sad that it took me so long to discover it; I suspect that, like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a book I’m going to be returning to rather a lot in the coming years, as inspiration and reminder. This is what we are fighting against.