One of the intriguing things about dystopian novels is finding the parallels between the disturbing fictive world of the story and our somewhat less disturbing reality. At its most chilling, the genre reads more as premonition than cautionary tale – as if we’re already on the wrong path and there is little chance we’re going to remedy the situation. In this way, a compelling premise can feel more important to a dystopian novel than the plot or the storytelling. That is, until you go to read the book.
In Hillary Jordan’s 2011 novel When She Woke, the author brilliantly conceives of a desperate set of circumstances that feel perfectly distant-yet-familiar. Unfortunately, her execution of the story falls just shy of the setup’s promise. The book begins in a prison cell in a near-future Texas. Our protagonist, Hannah, has been convicted of having an abortion – a procedure that was criminalized by a religiously conservative government after a virulent disease left many women infertile. As part of her punishment, she is infected with a virus that changes the color of her skin to red, signifying murder (and a nod to the Scarlet Letter). This procedure, called Chroming, is used to relieve prison overcrowding after the bubble burst on the nation’s for-profit prison industry. The severity of a crime dictates the color of a parolee’s skin, and justice is rendered in all shades of Skittle.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the first third of the book is a real page turner. Hannah accepts her new pariah status with a steely resolve that readies the reader for an exceptionally strong protagonist. Her pregnancy was the result of an affair with a very influential, and very married, man of the cloth. Her own sartorial passion for cloth, as a seamstress, is a plot point built-up with a sensual intrigue greater than the actual affair. But then nothing exceptional happens with either of those two loves. What once felt like a desirous character bound for great insight, eventually is revealed to be naive young woman who is a tad boring. Which is a shame, because the Margaret Atwood-esque world Hannah inhabits is beyond fascinating.