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[517] When She Woke – Hillary Jordan

” I thought I had, after I was raped, but that was idiotic. How can you lose what is inside of you, which is integrated in each molecule of your body? You cannot lose God any more than you can lose your brain or your soul. Without either of them, there is no you. ” (304)

Set in near-future America, Dallas to be exact, where religious extremism wields such power that people are stripped of individual choices, When She Woke is a dystopic novel about how faith, love, and sexuality have fallen prey to politics. Hannah Payne is raised in a devoted Christian family. She is a seamstress of bridal clothes who lives a life of simplicity and content, until an encounter with Reverend Aidan, with whom she has an affair and by whom she becomes pregnant. She is quickly arrested after abortion, a felony punishable by melachroming—criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime. In Hannah’s case she is a Red for murder.This stark color coordination, symbolic of the perpetrator’s transgression, is reminiscent the letter A worn by Hester Pryne, except the whereabouts of Hannah is constantly monitored by a nanotransmitter.

But its tears, Hannah perceived suddenly, didn’t just spring from wretchedness, they were also tears of relief, because it was alive, because it had survived another day. How could anything be grateful for such an existence? And yet, this creature was, and when it saw itself and knew that it wanted to live in spite of everything, it wept even harder, sobbing inconsolably until it was depleted. (280)

Determined to protect the identity of the father, she is sentenced to thirty days in jail, followed by an indefinite period in a religious rehabilitation center, where she is forced to reflect on her sins and to imagine alternate future of her aborted child. She might be wrong to pursue the forbidden love, but she shall be allowed to make her choices on abortion.

Feminists. The word made Hannah bristle with distaste. In her word, they were viewed as unnatural women who sought to overturn the order laid down by God, sabotage the family, emasculate men and, along with gays, atheists, abortionists, Satanists, pornographers and secular humanists, pervert the American way of life. (206)

At once intense and horrifying, When She Woke is an alarming perception of the dire consequences of a cookie-cutter religion. Like the sexual criminals portrayed in Lost Memory of Skin, but more powerfully nuanced, the women are stigmatized for making their own choices, choices that they feel right but renounced by a society that politicizes faith.

Hannah found herself in a kind of magic circle of ignominy. Her first instinct was to make herself invisible, but then a sudden defiance rose in her, and she looked directly at the faces of her fellow passengers, these people who felt so repelled by and morally superior to her . . . (172)

I adore Jordan’s style, elegant, contemplative and slightly repudiating. I like her sarcasm that Canada would be the answer to those of us who will never fit into normal America. The book begins promisingly, with Hannah’s incrimination, but tapers off as she goes on this fugitive chase that ends up in the safe nest of some militant feminists. But the novel’s cunning futuristic trappings can’t quite disguise its ­weather-beaten theme: a repressed young woman’s liberation from co-dependency, religious fetter and bankrupt self-esteem.

341 pp. Algonquin Books. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

One Response

  1. […] [517] When She Woke – Hillary Jordan […]

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