As attacks on women’s health increase, “When She Woke” seems less like science fiction and more like a conservative’s wet dream. Hillary Jordan’s second novel is an homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter;” Hester Prynne is Hannah Payne, and her sin is not adultery, but abortion. Instead of wearing a letter for her crimes, her whole body has been “chromed:” When she woke, she was red.
Jordan’s update to an old classic couldn’t be more timely. The correlations between Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century drama in a small New England community are eerily similar to present-day political maneuverings. Hannah’s illicit lover is the minister of a mega-church, and the Secretary of Faith of this futuristic United States. Hannah is a seamstress, like Hester, and makes daring knee-length skirts and key-hole blouses to wear in secret. After she’s arrested for having an abortion, Hannah bears her indignities alone, unwilling to expose the Reverend Aidan Dale as an adulterer:
“…I would have been compelled to name Aidan as the father or go to prison for contempt until I did. Because they would have notified the state paternity board, subpoenaed him, had him tested, ordered Ignited Word to garnish his wages for child support. Destroyed his life and his ministry. Because I loved him, more than our child. And still do.”
After being released from her mandatory chroming and thirty-day stay in televised prison, she enters a religious halfway house for other reds, where they can repent their sins while free from the dangers of the outside world (chromes are easy targets for vigilantes). Each woman must make a doll representing her unborn child, name it (guess what name Hannah chooses), and apologize daily for taking its life. Hannah performs these duties mostly willingly, until she finds this life intolerable and follows another red back into the world where they hope to find a way to live out their sentences in peace.
Although the author seems to be coming from a place that’s pro-woman and pro-choice, the decision to make Hannah a religious fundamentalist who believes she has “killed” an “innocent” for the sake of her lover’s career comes off as more than a little heavy-handed. Hannah’s slow journey toward recognizing her own personhood comes late, following laborious musings on, for example, why only men are free to wear pants. What was most likely the author’s effort to create a character who believably moves from one end of a spectrum to another is often confusing—is the book pro-woman or not? At its worst, “When She Woke” seems to be written for readers half a century ago, to convince them that women should be educated and encouraged to be full members of society, not to mention respecting their reproductive choices. Unlike the standard bearer of the futuristic, anti-women society, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Jordan is less skilled at creating an immersive society in which the characters live and breathe. We can’t all be Margaret Atwood, after all. But at its best, this book might encourage the budding feminist reader to consider the complexity of reproductive choices. Hannah learns a phrase that serves as a kind of password: “It’s personal”—an obvious nod to the Second Wave Feminist refrain, “The personal is political.” Learning that lesson can be a long journey. (Kelly Roark)
“When She Woke”
By Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books, 352 pages, $24.95