When She Woke

When She Woke - Hillary Jordan I read this book in one sitting. It is quickly paced and highly readable, both of which are good qualities for a novel to have, generally. Unless you want readers to linger over passages, to actually experience a character's existential horror at discovering she has been turned entirely red for a crime that in this little dystopic world is paramount to murder. Currently, this is the case in some states (but they don't turn people red and then turn them loose into a holier-than-thou-society where the life expectancy for Chromes, as criminals in this book are called, is relatively short). No, in today's society, things like adultery and abortion are still private matters; unless you're famous, of course. Unfortunately for Hannah Pryne, her lover and the father of her aborted child is rather famous and the society in which she lives is almost more puritain than the puritans. The back bone for this story is a retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter.' This provides some of the most basic plot points, but the the novel itself feels closer to Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale,' if only because it takes place in a modern, very near future society (at one odd point, the character knows what John F. Kennedy's voice sounded like; this feels rather anachronistic). Christian fundamentalism regarding women's reproductive rights has made its way into national policy, due to a trifecta of disaster: massive decline in white birthrates in general, a super STD (the superclap) that made a significant amount of the female population sterile before a cure was discovered 7 years to late, and a briefly referenced Second Great Depression. Almost all of these things are blamed on Feminism and Feminists at one point in the novel. In short, a modern, fully technologically advanced society has reverted back to a form of Puritanism more effectively Puritain than anything our forbearers could have wished for. And yet. And yet. Where is the horror? where is the revulsion, the pity, the terrible cry of protest from the reader that this novel should evoke? It isn't there. It took me several weeks to read 'The Handmaid's Tale', mainly because I had to stop reading, had to give myself a break from a world that felt all too real, from characters that were emotionally vivid and alive. The key word here is felt. When you read Atwood's novel, you feel things; you feel a mounting and inescapable horror. You are haunted by the book and by its narrator. When reading Jordan's, the only thing one feels is a desire to get to the end, to see what happens, to see if she really will make it. And this is the novel's success as well. There is little emotional connection in this novel mainly because of its obviousness and its heavy-handedness. Others have said similar things regarding a lack of subtlety for who we should blame and hate, but I'm talking more about the fact that we are told everything we should feel, and we are told everything thing the character feels. Instead of seeing, instead of being shown how she feels, how she thinks, how she copes,we are told. Jordan seems to make a rather freshman mistake in violating the 'show, don't tell' mantras of writing gurus. More showing and less telling, and this could be a powerful if unambiguous tale. This novel attempts to tackle some of the big ideas of our time; religious freedom, women's continuing struggle for rights to their bodies, sexual identity, racism, class inequality, and last but not least, god. Yet the character's awakening to these issues feels hollow and trite.I give this book four stars because it is good, it is enjoyable. It got me out of my current reality and into one that like Atwood's tale, could come to pass. If not quite literally, then certainly figuratively (if the current breed of conservatives have their way, watch out Planned Parenthood. Oh wait, we've already been there). It will be a good talking point and a way for modern students, if the book doesn't get banned for talking about the scarlet A (abortion, not adultery), to see what ostracism can look like in a modern society (though Hannah spends fairly little time on her own, actually). The book also deals with agency, and that is a discussion that needs to take place more and more often in the face of popular novels like the Twilight series. I would recommend this novel to people who like dystopian fiction, and to people who like good and bad easily and clearly defined for them. This book is good, and I do like it, but it unfortunately doesn't require much thought. Some might argue that Atwood's Tale is just as polarizing, has lines that are just as clearly drawn. Her characters, however complicate these lines. Atwood achieves a humanity in her writing that Jordan lacks, but I think is capable of achieving, given time and experience. The fact that two are even being compared (and not just by me) should say something about Jordan's potential. I look forward to watching Jordan's career, and have Mudbound on order.