Book review: ‘When She Woke’ by Hillary Jordan

When She WokeWhen Hannah Payne wakes, she might as well be in a nightmare.

Sentenced to life as a Red, one of many Chromes forced to scrape by in this new hardscrabble America, Hannah tries to process the weary path that’s brought her to an isolated cell before delivery to a cult — a stunning turn of events after a lifetime of loyalty and piety to God. Her bright red skin now broadcasts her crime to the world: murder. Murder of her unborn child.

In a world where disease has rendered many women infertile, abortion is seen as the ultimate sin against church and state. And now that the lines between religion and government are increasingly blurred, no one can speak freely — or defend the defenseless.

Life as a Chrome — a criminal whose skin has been genetically altered to match their offense — is a stunning, cruel wake-up for a serious young woman who never wanted to hurt anyone . . . least of all the ones she loves. But after a deep friendship turns into a passionate affair with a prominent and well-respected leader, Hannah carries the product of their passion alone . . . for as long as she can.

But where will that lead her?

Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke is a heart-stopping thriller raising countless questions about faith, love and loyalty. A dystopian novel set in the not-so-distant future, Jordan’s America is a stark, unforgiving and frightening place — but one that remains recognizable, making it all the more hair-raising.

Every time I caught a glimpse of our current world, I imagined a time at which our prisons would be too full for new inmates. Of what it would be like to have your skin altered to reflect a crime you could have committed ten, twenty years ago — and how it would feel to have every movement charted on a port for public consumption. Of violence against Chromes being the norm, and for racism to be all but eradicated in favor of hatred and misunderstanding for a new enemy. Friendships, relationships, family life, work . . . nothing can be pure for a Chrome. Nothing can be the same.

As a character, Hannah is a strong-willed, broken but determined young woman. So many times I wanted her to scream out the truth, reveal everything in the hope of saving herself, but I knew she couldn’t — wouldn’t — do that. Still in love with the man who fathered her child, she knows that exposing him will cause a tremendous scandal and wound for her community — and possibly make those who depend on him for spiritual guidance question their beliefs. Still somehow hoping to find her way back to God, Hannah simply can’t do that. Not even to free herself.

You have to commend her, really. For everything she endures, everything she suffers, Hannah never wavers in her commitment to guard the identity of her love — and to push forward despite it all, finding some way to return to her family and faith. After nearly everyone has abandoned her, including her own mother and sister, Hannah manages to summon the courage to imagine a life after the abortion. After Chroming. Even if it means disappearing from life as she knows it.

What makes When She Woke so compelling are the shades of current society in Jordan’s splintered future — as well as the dynamics between Hannah and her love as well as Kayla, a fellow Chrome she befriends in a harrowing place designed to purge them of their sins. I loved that the pair bonded in a hopeless situation, and it was their loyalty to one another that guided them through countless miseries.

And make no mistake: there were miseries. This isn’t a happy tale, friends, though I must say how pleased I was with the ending. Even when life seems unbearably bleak, tiny rays of hope crack through the darkness. I wondered at points if When She Woke was making a statement against the hold of the religious right over America, perhaps, or how easily swayed the people can be by the thoughts of man — not God. But in the end, I don’t think that’s so. Jordan had me questioning many aspects of modern society, but she didn’t belittle the Paynes’ faith. Wonder about it, certainly, but not cut down.

In the end, I found this novel deeply imaginative and incredibly interesting. The idea of melachroming was very unique, and it’s been a while since I read a work of dystopian or science fiction that captivated me so completely. By the conclusion I felt as though I’d spent days white-knuckle gripping a sinking life boat with Hannah, riding out the waves and hanging on as best I could. Though I wish certain events had gone differently, I was proud of her.

If you think this might be a book you’ll enjoy, it is.


4.5 out of 5!

Pub: Oct. 4, 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


About the audio: Narrator Heather Corrigan had a voice dripping with just the right amount of curiosity, disdain, fear and youthful exuberance — a reader who captured the conflicting emotions and situations of Hannah’s existence quite well. I loved both her crispness and innocence . . . which made everything that befalls Hannah all the more powerful.


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15 thoughts on “Book review: ‘When She Woke’ by Hillary Jordan

  1. I have just read this book too, it grabbed hold of me so that I had to finish it in about two days! I loved the whole concept of being “chromed” as a punishment, and the imagined future with women as second class citizens once more really stayed with me. This is a great review!

  2. This book was intense. I had a hard time putting it down; for all the reasons you list here. I’m glad to hear the audio is so good, because now I want to reread it!

  3. I’ve just rebloged this, but I really want to read it soonly and untill I understand what ordinary the concept is about..

  4. I really liked this back when I read it. I keep meaning to read MudBound by her. I found it at the second hand store and just haven’t got to it!

  5. Sounds like an interesting read. Also sounds a bit like a futuristic version of the Scarlet Letter. Instead of a red A, her skin is turned red, and her sin is still connected to an affair with a religious leader, but it’s getting rid of the child and not keeping it that has her marked as a sinner. Definitely adding this to my list of must reads!

  6. I picked up this book in a bookshop a while back and started skimming through it while my friend looked for her school books. I got so sucked in! Sadly, I didn’t have the money to buy it and kind of forgot about it. I’m glad I read this post! I have to go out and search for it again!

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