When She Woke is not a young adult novel (the protagonist, Hannah Payne, is 25), but it will definitely cross over. Many teens, after reading the Hunger Games, Divergent, or Blood Red Road, will naturally gravitate to this dystopian thriller. The novel is a provocative story, rife with highly charged themes, that will undoubtedly get banned in many states. I found my copy in the Young Adult section of my local bookstore in San Francisco—and as my friend who works at the store pointed out, the book is packaged to look like a YA book with its narrow size and gorgeous cover, black with a young woman’s profile, expressionless, washed in crimson.
When she woke, she was red.
With that first line, author Hillary Jordan immediately throws us into a world where criminals are “chromed,” injected with a virus to change the color of their skin to reflect the severity of their crime: yellow, orange, and red. The book opens with Hannah Payne sitting in a cell, flanked with cameras, filmed for the entire country to watch her serve her penitence. There is no privacy, not even on the toilet or in the shower. Her skin and hair have been genetically altered to a deep red to match the class of her crime: Murder. She has had an abortion, a capital crime in the state of Texas. Worse, she refuses to name the father of her unborn child or the doctor who performed the operation.
Opening in such a bleak setting, I felt a brief sense of relief when Hannah gets released from prison a chapter or so later, only to discover her prison cell is merely the first small step of a long nightmarish journey Hannah must endure as a red Chrome—a fast, compelling, page-turning read I couldn't put down.Concerning Character: Raised in a strict, deeply religious home in Texas, Hannah has led a simple, reverent life, yet she always feels different, internally questioning whether she wants to follow her parents’ expectations for her: a life of child rearing, marriage, and church. But when she falls in love with Aiden Dale, the married pastor of her church, her questioning intensifies as their affair ensues. From the beginning, Hannah’s love for Aiden shadows any doubt she might have about his character. Even after she goes to prison while he grows in both power and popularity, first becoming a televangelist and later the U.S. Secretary of Faith, she continues to defend him internally to herself while protecting his anonymity to the world. Her unwavering faith in him is frustrating and maddening—I kept waiting for her to finally see the truth—and yet so believable and compelling. I’ve known many friends like Hannah. I’ve been Hannah, stuck in the same bad relationship, giving someone I loved another undeserved chance because I wanted more than anything to believe he felt the same way. It’s the kind of lesson one only learns the hard way, and Jordan perfectly captures that lovesick innocence, stretching it across the span of the novel, until Hannah discovers her own inner strength and self-worth at the end.
Themes & Things: When She Woke explores numerous themes: abortion, freedom of choice, questioning one’s faith, the politics of evangelical Christianity, the public’s right to know of their neighbors’ criminal pasts (such as Megan’s list in California), female sexuality, adultery, love.
But because it’s an adult book and not YA, Jordan can explore female sexuality in depth. The sex itself may happen off-camera, but Hannah feelings are shared in painstaking detail. This is one of the first books I’ve read in a long time where the female protagonist initiates a sexual experience with someone she doesn’t love and no terrible consequences happen to her. She does not end up in a relationship with that person, nor does she acquire some horrible disease or become wracked with guilt, worried her actions make her a slut. Her sexual experimentation happens toward the end of the book, and Hannah, wiser after her harrowing ordeal, doesn’t become consumed with self-judgment and self-hatred as a result. She tries a new experience, learns about herself in the process, and moves on—something that rarely, if ever, happens in YA.
You can find When She Woke at an independent bookstore near you!