In When She Woke, an antibiotic-resistant STD that gives men no symptoms but leaves women infertile and a nuclear terrorist attack on Los Angeles in near-future America have unleashed a social response so conservative that the United States has become a theocratic caricature of itself. Steep economic decline coupled with isolated technological advances and near-martial law have the government shutting down prisons. Instead of rehabilitating offenders, or simply setting them free, they (and new offenders) are Chromed – injected with a virus that turns their skin one of a handful of crayon box colors, each hue a reference to the class of their offense – for the term of their sentence. Our protagonist, Hannah, is a Red. You can guess her offense. (In Dystopian Theocratic Future America Bingo, getting an abortion has got to be the Free Space.) You can guess why. (In Dystopian Theocratic Future America Bingo, falling in love with the pastor, getting knocked up by the pastor, and refusing to name the pastor to the draconian sentencing board gets you almost all the way across the game board.) It isn’t classified as YA fiction, yet it often reads like it in a way that I can detect but not quite define. I picked up the ebook for $.99 when it was on sale at Amazon, and these well-worn plot devices made me prepared to hate it – or, at least, think it was a rote retread of more sophisticated works that probably wasn’t worth my time.
But, as is so often the case, I have been surprised by this book. Hillary Jordan grabbed me by the ears with her simple storytelling, and she freaked me right the fuck out from the very first pages. Maybe it’s something about the time in which it is set (no dates are given, but based on references to characters ages and known world events, this would be my future in 15 or 20 years – essentially, I don’t have to imagine an alternative or far-off timeline; just aging normally) or Hannah’s deeply familiar born-again Evangelical Christian family and community, but everything about this book feels intimately, distinctly, specifically real. I’ve never been particularly discomfited by dystopian fiction, because it all always seemed sufficiently distant. The Hunger Games are preceded by an apocalyptic nuclear civil war – unlikely. Station Eleven is preceded by a global viral pandemic so severe that 90% of the world’s population is dead in weeks – again, possible, but pretty damn unlikely. I don’t remember what the deal was with Oryx and Crake, but it felt similarly remote. But here? An antibiotic-resistant STD is already present in our population. Ultra-conservative backlash to social progress is what put our current President (jesus fucking christ, I still can’t with that) in the White House. Terrorist attacks aren’t exactly a distant memory. Jordan isn’t writing about a world that is different in kind from the one in which we currently live, only in degree. And not by that much. It is entirely conceivable – perhaps even likely, to some extent – that I could end up living in some variation of that hellscape in 15 or 20 years.
That’s fucking terrifying.
In writing this book, Jordan does two things very well. First, her pacing is spot-on. Despite the familiar plot devices, she creates effective, but not overwhelming, tension for her readers. What will happen next? Who are these shadowy characters? Who can be trusted? Second, she creates a meaningful and relatable personal development story for her protagonist. While it was the landscape that gripped me at first, it was Hannah’s inner journey that led me by the hand through the last third of the book.
Specifics of her situation aside, a decade ago, I was Hannah. Deeply wounded by what I thought had been God’s will for my life, I felt confused, adrift, and painfully, utterly alone in the universe. To go from complete certainty about what you believe to be life’s most important questions to complete uncertainty is to experience a kind of existential fear and loneliness that I’ve never been able to find words to describe. It was my life’s nadir. Of course, this story has a happy ending. This internal interrogation of my faith led me to answers that did make sense and gave me peace. But it’s been a long time since I plumbed the wounds of that painful period, and reading Hannah’s story was like a time-warp back to that fragile emotional state. For a brief moment, Hannah had a guide through a particularly dark patch, and that woman’s words were revelatory to me. If I had access to such radical faith-based love during that time in my life, I may not have needed to travel all the way to atheism to find my peace. As I read, I felt a sense of spiritual communion with her and it was healing in a way I didn’t know I needed.
The book is not without flaws. The second sexual awakening scene is too unlikely not to be a little bit jarring. As a bisexual woman who grew up in the homophobia of the Evangelical church, I can say with authority that those feelings of shame and fear aren’t so easily repressed simply because there’s an attractive woman in your hotel room and no place for you to go for the next 12 hours. Also, the sacrifice of the black supporting character to serve the emotional development of the white main character is troubling. Some of the early character development is formulaic enough that it feels a bit juvenile. As the book stands, it would have been better served to be marketed as a YA novel, where these “flaws” are an accepted aspect of the genre; otherwise, Jordan’s editor should have worked with her to flesh out some of these too-broad logical jumps. At 344 pages, the book was not overwhelmingly long and a bit more attention in a few of these areas would have turned it into a true masterwork.
In the end, When She Woke is a uniquely personal book. It is manifestly evident that Jordan has been through a similar journey herself, and I am profoundly touched by how she has shared that experience through crafting this story.
Rating: Four stars, and a big, grateful hug