I read Mudbound, Hillary Jordan’s debut novel, when it first came out, after Jordan did an event at the bookstore where I worked. After the reading, when asked about what she was working on next, Jordan hinted that her next novel would be very different from Mudbound, and I was instantly intrigued. The long-awaited When She Woke is finally about to be published, and let me tell you, it was worth the wait. It will be out on October 4th; mark your calendars now!
About the Book:
When Hannah Payne wakes up, she is red. Not pink, like she’s been out in the sun too long. Red. She has plenty of time to consider her new condition, locked, as she is, in an isolated room, no company but her own thoughts, her every move monitored and broadcast to homes across America. Hannah has been chromed, her skin dyed to signify the crime for which she has been convicted: murder. The victim? Her own unborn child.
When Hannah is released from her confinement, it is into a hostile world, where the violent hue of her skin causes some people to shrink back and others to leer threateningly. Even her own family, try as they might, cannot relate to Hannah in the same way they used to. Even Hannah herself, whose Christian faith was once unshakeable, finds she does not know this changed woman. As Hannah begins to make her way through this new world, everything she thought she knew about herself will be turned upside down.
If you read Mudbound, you are most likely wondering if the author of When She Woke is one and the same. I assure you, she is. The stories may be different, but the writing, the creativity, and the genius that I believe mark Jordan’s novels is fully present in both. Jordan has simply turned her gaze forward to a not-so-distant future instead of back to the recent past.
The future America in which Hannah’s ordeal plays out is a chilling extension of our own present. Church and state have grown uncomfortably close, a former mega-church pastor now serving as secretary of faith to the president. Footage of detained Chromes in isolation is broadcast as a sort of reality TV. Chromes can be geographically tracked via the Internet by any interested party. And, as Hannah’s situation makes clear, abortion is punished as murder. I think Margaret Atwood herself would be proud.
In her acknowledgements, Jordan gives a nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, as the inspiration and basis for When She Woke. It has been many years since I read Hawthorne’s classic, and I hated it then as I hated nearly every book I was forced to read in high school. But if The Scarlet Letter can inspire such a thought-provoking novel as When She Woke, I believe it may be worth revisiting. You need not be familiar with Hawthorne’s novel to appreciate Jordan’s, though.
The range of themes Jordan tackles is staggering: abortion, religion, the punishment and reform of criminals, women’s rights. One of her skills as a writer, though, is how deftly she weaves her hefty chosen themes into a story that exhibits them perfectly without isolating them from their fictional context. She is truly a gifted writer, and one whose future work I will always eagerly anticipate.