FICTION REVIEW: 'When She Woke'

  • Article by: KATHRYN SAVAGE , Special to the Star tribune
  • Updated: October 11, 2011 - 2:04 PM

A woman's skin is dyed red after she has an abortion in this futuristic reimagining of "The Scarlet Letter."

"WHEN SHE WOKE," by Hillary Jordan

A woman wakes and she is red. "Not flushed," Hillary Jordan writes, "not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign."

The woman is Hannah Payne, a churchgoing Texan who, after having an illegal abortion, is administered a skin pigment-altering virus by the state. She is "Chromed," marked as a criminal, and forced to navigate society in skin the vibrant primary shade of murderers.

Set in a future America where theocracy reigns, abortion is murder and privacy a thing of the past, Jordan's second novel is a dystopian reimaging of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 classic, "The Scarlet Letter." Hannah has had an affair with a married preacher and ended her pregnancy because genetic tests will reveal his identity, stalling his ascending career. For concealing his identity, for protecting the man she loves, she is ostracized from her community, vilified. Jordan's alienating social and political landscape echoes Hawthorne's Puritan Boston.

The narration provocatively questions what the United States would look like without choice and free will; shop windows display NO CHROMES ALLOWED signs, Holden Caulfield is on the Satan's Pen list and satellite images, broadcast over the Internet, reveal the location of Chromes in real time. Visibility is entrapment for Hannah, and her life is fueled by the tension of feeling watched, of being enslaved by her skin. As Hannah navigates life as a marked murderer, she locates a reserve of strength and questions her former identity: Hannah the Churchgoer, the guilt-riddled mistress of the most adored preacher in America, the woman who ended her pregnancy to save a man's life.

"When She Woke" is a departure from Jordan's debut novel, "Mudbound," which explored themes of racism in the Mississippi Delta in the lives of two World War II-era families. "Mudbound" garnered critical praise, earning the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a biennial founded by author Barbara Kingsolver and awarded to fiction that explores social justice.

Jordan continues to explore moral and political complexity, but the engine of her second novel is self-discovery. Hannah never shies from the startling inconvenience and provocative varieties of love; she falls for Rev. Dale, and, later, a female member of the Novembrists, a "shadow pro-abortion group" whose motto is "abortion is personal," and who take Hannah under their wing. Sensitive to her protagonist's doubts, questions of identity and newly burgeoning self-respect, Jordan narrates with emotional acuity as Hannah becomes an unlikely female vigilante, increasingly self-assured.

An inventive tale about a new America that has lost its way -- whose values echo fundamentalism -- "When She Woke" is, at its heart, a tense, energetic and lively paced story about self-discovery and reclamation in the wake of enormous shame. It is a story about the price of love.

  • WHEN SHE WOKE

    By: Hillary Jordan.

    Publisher: Algonquin Books, 344 pages, $24.95.

    Review: "When She Woke" is tense, energetic and lively, a gripping story but also a tale about how America has lost its way.

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