Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (Spoilers)

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is a modern re-telling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter.  Jordan takes Hawthorne's classic plot, an adulterous affair between a revered pastor and a young woman of the community, and turns it on its head by placing it in a futuristic society defined by several distinct groups - the uber-religious, those who oppose them, and the Chromes.  Previously a member of the first group, Hannah Payne, Jordan's Hester Pryne, wakes on page one as a member of the latter group based on her interactions with the famed Reverend Aidan Dale, Jordan's Reverend Dimmesdale.  The Chromes are the futuristic United States' version of India's "Untouchable" caste.  Injected with a melachrome "virus," which turns the victim's skin a bright color synonymous with his/her crime, a Chrome is a visual and vivid reminder to the populace of the consequences of breaking the rules.  Hannah wakes as a red for murder.  To protect the reputation of the man she loves, Hannah terminates the illegitimate pregnancy that results at the end of their two year tryst.  Abortions are illegal in Hannah's world, but there are still a few doctors willing to perform them if the price is right or the need dire.  Hannah's interaction with her abortionist, a man known only as "Raphael," is her first contact with the subversive, anti-abortion group The Novemberists and her first act of independent rebellion against the community of family and faith that has controlled her until now.

All the passion, intrigue, and originality expressed in the plot summary above are met and exceeded in the first half of Jordan's novel.  The opening chapter is gripping in its strangeness and in the primitive emotions felt by Hannah as she must learn to traverse this world as a Chrome without her family, friends, and lover.  Despite her transgressions, Hannah is a woman of unwavering principle as demonstrated by her refusal to provide the name of her lover or abortionist during her trial and the inhumane treatment she suffers in the televised Chrome Ward and later in the "Straight Path" shelter; however, as poignant and riveting as the first half of the novel is, the second half does not deliver the same quality of prose.  In fact, it is like reading an entirely different book and an entirely different genre.  What began as a dystopian remake of a 19th century classic morphs into a mission impossible/Bourne Identity spoof.

Jordan lost me the minute the Novemberists swooped down to rescue Hannah and her new friend and fellow Chrome, Kayla, and put them on the "path" to melachrome reversal.  While ideal, the rescue and new identity motif is not one supported by the 200+ pages that came before or in the original.  The novel would have been more compelling had it remained focused on Hannah's struggles to redefine herself in a world she no longer fits into - visually, emotionally, and spiritually - instead of forcing an entire new cast of characters and plot points on the reader.  I understand that Jordan wants the reader to see Hannah turn into a confident, independent thinker and woman - controlled by no one but her own self and desires - but the methods she took to get her there were unnecessary and, at times, off-putting.  I am speaking of, as one reviewer put it, the "contrived lesbian experience."  I went to an all women's college, so lesbianism is by no means a foreign concept to me, however, I resent Jordan using lesbianism or bi-sexuality as a vehicle for gratitude and an obvious example of Hannah's departure from her previous held beliefs.  Hannah's fundamental change as a person is evident without this drastic, and doubtful, change in her behavior.  Jordan seems to realize this mistake, and Hannah shrinks from further encounters with her female partner, but this detail rings untrue like a sour note in an otherwise harmonious chorus. 

The conclusion with its implied melachrome reversal was also a disappointment.  After so much thought and detail had gone into the explanation and description of the melachrome process, no time at all was devoted to its equally interesting and complex reversal.  Although I appreciated the symmetry of the waking opening and closing lines, on a whole I was disappointed with the ambiguous conclusion.

Best matched with fans of dystopia and contemporary, revitalized fiction.

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