Thursday, 29 March 2012

Book Review: 'When She Woke' by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke
By Hillary Jordan

Published: 30th August, 2012
Publisher: Harper Collins
Genre: Dystopian, Re-Telling, Feminist
Format: Paperback
Pages: 344

Cover Art

I like the covers for this book but don't love them. My copy has the red tinted edges which I liked because it's something a little different! The cover on the right is simple and has a picture of the main character, which is OK but people on covers don't excite me much. The cover on the left is the one I have and I really love the font and how the title takes over the whole page; I seriously love a good font! 

Plot Synopsis

Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family, but after her arrest, she awakens to a nightmare: she is lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes – criminals whose skin colour has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime – is a new and sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. The victim, according to the State of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure with whom she’s shared a fierce and forbidden love. 

My Rating:
First Lines:
'When she woke, she was Red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign.'


I have been thinking since I finished the book.

I have been thinking about women. How women allow themselves to be treated. The hypocrises between the way men and women are treated. The role and position of women in different societies. How women are treated by religion/ the Church. What the female body represents.

This book is based on 'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne which is set in 17th-century Puritan Boston during the years 1642 to 1649 and tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an adulterous affair and is made to wear the letter 'A' in scarlet on her breast so everybody can see what she has done. In 'When She Woke' the sin in abortion and instead of the scarlet letter Hannah's skin is genetically altered, or 'Chromed' to become Red. Both stories address a fallen, stigmitised woman who is cast out from society, but who becomes empowered through her new-found independence from a hypocritical society/Church. The women become empowered by their shame because it allows them to see through the conventions of their former narrow life. Of these conventions, in 'When She Woke' I found the way Hannah Payne questioned the female role and sexuality the most intriguing.

This book addresses a lot of issues surrounding women. There are even a group of people who are described as feminist terrorists. Hannah feels she loses her femininity when she becomes a Red, and she no longer feels desirable to men. She is unable to keep the light on when in the presence of a man she desires and she is jealous when other women receive male attention. However, the primary issues that Hannah encounters when she turns Red are men believing her to be a whore and men being more sexually aggressive. She wants male attention but on her own terms. Being Red means that men feel they can leer at her and treat her as a piece of meat. I feel that this is a problem even now in our society; I know so many girls who refuse to dress up in a short skirt or revealing clothes and full makeup and walk down the street in broad daylight. Why? Because they will almost certainly receive either catcalls or derogatory remarks about their appearance...from men. It is awful that women do not feel safe to look however they want and act however they want without worrying about the aggression or intimidation they may receive. I hate that, even now, women who dress provocatively and are then assaulted are told they brought it on themselves; NO. Teaching men that it is fine to accost women who dress in a certain way is completely messed up; the crime itself is what is wrong not how the woman presents herself. I feel this book made me think a lot about that as the men Hannah encounters who have been Chromed gain a dangerous-ness and edginess which means they seem tough and potentially bad-ass whereas the Chroming makes women more vulnerable and much more likely to be sexually attacked. Is the the real punishment for Chromed women? 

It was also interesting how Hannah's life was completely controlled by men throughout the novel (until the last section). She is in a domestic bubble; a seamstress dreaming of a man to come and whisk her away where she can be a good wife forever more. She has never questioned the gender roles assigned by her parents and her Church- that the woman/wife rules the domestic sphere while the man 'takes charge' and earns the money. She begins to become angry that she has never been taught to fend for herself, never been given alternate skills that would mean she could pursue another direction; if she hadn't been turned Red she would never have escaped from her enclosed life and may have ended up like Becca; stuck with a controlling, violent man with babies and no one to talk to...and the Church judging you if you manage to pluck up the courage to file for divorce. Hannah only realises the unpleasantness of that life when she is Red and blames her parents for shielding her as much as they do.

Hannah also begins to question her sexuality in the novel. As her previous religious views begin to change, she realises that she can believe in her own God and not one who is riddled with hypocrisy and never- answered questions. She realises that sexuality is another box she has been placed in to- why can't she be attracted to a woman and why does it have to mean anything if she is? Why does she need to be labeled? Hannah defies labels by constantly stating that her lover's wife is 'his Elinor' - the sensible, reserved and ever-practical Elinor Dashwood from 'Sense and Sensibility' (I believe). This is what she believes men want; people like her sister and her mother who are ever controlled and domestic but she knows she doesn't fit in this mould, just as she cannot fit it the strictly heterosexual mould. Most people, deep down, want to experience sex with the same gender and why shouldn't we? It doesn't mean you become gay or bisexual or any other just means you performed an action which does not necessarily become your identity. Being a woman or being straight is not who we are and doesn't need to define us; this is what Hannah seems to begin to realise.

The religious guilt in this book is staggering. I am not at all religious and was not brought up as such, or in a place that was religious at all, yet I could feel it affecting me as I read about how ashamed and guilty Hannah constantly felt. She feels that God has abandoned her because she had sex and had an abortion, she feels empty and alone. Which must be horrendous- when you have believed in something so passionately for so long to suddenly feel it has been withdrawn must be an awful feeling. I think it is terrible that organised religion and the Church have that kind of power over people; the Catholic guilt syndrome that means you feel shit about yourself if you do anything that goes against scripture written...what...thousands of years ago by people we know nothing about who probably had their own agenda? It is insane to me and I hated how Hannah felt so awful whenever she tried to break out of her narrow life and actually do something she wanted to do. The rehabilitation house she goes to is a living Hell and I was very relieved when she left- Mrs Henley, the owner's wife, exploits and humiliates the women for pleasure and it made me angry to read about it! 

I think this novel just shows how people who have a tangible and visible weakness- whether that be construed as race, gender, sexuality etc- can be treated in society and by religion and how trapped they are within a cycle of never being good enough or having the confidence to step outside their bubble for fear of being abused. I think this novel is quite inspirational as Hannah really learns what is important and learns how to be independent and rely on herself rather than a man or her formerly cosy, safe, but narrow-minded life.

Other Thoughts

This Book has Inspired me to Read: 'The Handmaid's Tale'by Margaret Atwood...I dipped in and out of it in school but never read it cover to cover which I would like to do!

Three Words to Describe this Book: Enlightening. Relevant. Feminist.


  1. As to the cover...I am a simple person and only have one idea at a time...the one on the right would totally make me pick it up, the one on the left, not at all.

  2. It isn't often I add a wishlist book from a blog recommendation but I am this time, great review.

    Thanks for the Goodreads follow, I am your newest blog follower. If you haven't already done so there is a few days left of the March Pre-loved giveaway.


    P.s are you going to the Jodi Picoult event?

  3. Fabulous, fabulous review. I've heard of this book, but never knew what it was about. I can't believe this book isn't everywhere!! This is a must-read. Thank you so much for spotlighting it!

  4. Agreed, this is a fantastically written review! I'm so happy that you saw so deeply into this book, and into Hannah who had an incredible journey (both literally and figuratively) throughout the story. I felt this was such a powerful feminist story, and a wonderful retelling. I hope that you do read The Handmaid's Tale and that you enjoy it, I'd recommend it to anyone who appreciated When She Woke.

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