While I’m not big on traditional science fiction or fantasy literature, I do love a good dystopian novel. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Unit and Never Let Me Go are three such novels. However, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, fell short of what I had hoped for.
The idea behind When She Woke is that in this society – which is set in the not too distant future – criminals are injected with a dye and released back into society. Crimes are classified by color; for example, yellow is for misdemeanors, red for murders and blue for child molesters. When the narrative opens, Hannah has just been turned red for aborting her unborn child whose father is a nationally known religious leader. Hannah refuses to ever name the father of her child and thus receives additional years to her sentence.
The novel is accurately described on the jacket as “Nathaniel Hawthorne by way of Margaret Atwood.” There is not much here that The Scarlet Letter doesn’t already delve into, Jordan just gives it a dystopic twist. While I think her predicate is interesting and does make for a good book club discussion, I don’t think she has much that is fresh or new.
Part of my distaste for When She Woke is that I’m tired of religion being the antagonist. This has less to do with my own religious beliefs than the fact that I think it is too easy of a target and one that seems to be repeated over and over and over. But since Jordan does choose Rev. Dale as the bad guy, I also thought she let him off the hook too easily. I don’t want to provide spoilers, but I would have liked to see her stray from Hawthorne’s structure and either demonize him to the end or have him suffer at someones hand other than his own.
Like most novels of this sort, When She Woke offers great fodder for book club discussion, and many in my group liked it. There are a few twists and hooks that provide “was this believable?” conversations. It is a quick read, so regardless of what you think at the end, it isn’t a huge waste of time.
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