Book Review – When She Woke

Cover ImageTitle: When She Woke

Author: Hillary Jordan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Date: 2011

Format: Paperback (341 pages)

Synopsis: Hannah Payne is a Red. Her crime: murder. And her victim, says the state of Texas, was her unborn child.

Lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, Hannah awakens into a nightmare. Cameras broadcast her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes – criminals whose skin has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime – is a sinister form of entertainment.

Hannah refuses to reveal the identity of the father. But cast back into to the world that has marked her for life, how far will she go to protect the man she loves?

A powerful reimagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a timely fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of the not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated. In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love.


This book was fantastic, wonderful, beautiful … you get the idea.

I read The Scarlet Letter a few years back and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, so when I came across this contemporary version set in a dystopian world I really wanted to read it. It’s actually been one of my most anticipated reads of the past year and it exceeded my expectations. You don’t have to have read The Scarlet Letter to enjoy this story, but for me being able to compare the two was an added bonus.

Hannah lives in a world suffering from the aftermath of a pandemic which left many women across the world infertile. In response America has outlawed abortions and devout Christianity has become the de facto law of the land. Revealing the father of her child, a highly respected religious leader, would destroy the faith of millions, including her own family, so Hannah undergoes an illegal abortion. When she is caught her punishment is to be “chromed” by a genetic virus which turns her skin red and will kill her if she does not submit to further injections for the rest of her life.

Unable to return to her family or survive for long in a world where Chromes are targets for violence and hatred, Hannah’s journey leads her to the doorsteps of a variety of individuals and organisations, only some of whom she can trust and all of whom have their own agenda. There was a thriller element to the plot as Hannah is often in danger and I didn’t want to put it down. I actually found myself thinking about it on the drive home from work and getting excited about getting back to it. That’s definitely the mark of a great book! It was the characters that really made the story meaningful for me though, and the two who struck me the most were Kayla and Simone.

Kayla is a fellow Red who Hannah meets shortly after being released from the Chrome Ward. Unlike Hannah, Kayla did not have a religious upbringing, and her cynical yet hilarious attitude to life and all the hell it throws at her was really refreshing and a great counterpoint to Hannah’s more serious nature. I’ve always loved characters who laugh in the face of danger or death, and Kayla was a perfect example of that.

Simone was a different kind of person entirely, and at first, like Hannah, I was very wary of her. Simone is involved in one of the secret organisations who operate under the radar in this society and at first her motivations are unclear and suspect. I didn’t expect the depth and layers of personality which unfolded as I got to know her, and she became a character I came to really care about and admire.

As for Hannah herself, I can honestly say that I haven’t felt this connected to a fictional character in a long time. It was so enjoyable and liberating to watch her free herself from the chains of her upbringing and discover for the first time who she really was without shame or fear. She cannot go back to her old life and must leave everything – and everyone – behind. This, of course, is sad and frightening, but it also gives her the courage to remake herself and discover what is truly valuable in life. For me, the conclusion to this journey was perfect. Everything from the setting to the dialogue to the descriptions just felt right. I loved it. It felt … fresh, somehow. Like Hannah was being reborn, which in a sense, she was.

I’m currently a bit obsessed with Hozier’s Take Me To Church and the soul and lyrics of the song really connect with this novel in a lot of ways. It’s made me love the song even more and it’s rare that I’ve ever found a connection like this between a book and a song, so that’s really awesome.

I can’t really say any more about how this book made me feel because I’m not sure how to articulate it. It just really meant a lot to me. To borrow a meaningful phrase from the book – “It’s personal.”

You can check out Take Me To Church below:

Overall Rating: Book Rating PictureBook Rating PictureBook Rating PictureBook Rating PictureBook Rating Picture  My bookworm rating system is explained here.

Other Works by this Author: Hillary Jordan has also written another novel called Mudbound and a novella called Aftermirth. I’ve put them both on my TBR list.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review – When She Woke

  1. Dude, I’m obsessed with Take Me to Church too! So if you connected this book to that song, I definitely want to check it out. The book sounds really interesting too, and I don’t think I’ve read anything that was sort of like a retelling of The Scarlet Letter. Definitely adding it to my TBR.

      • Great! I haven’t read any other reviews for it so it would interesting to hear what you think. I’ve just followed your blog so I won’t miss it if you do review it in the future. 🙂

      • You’re welcome! That’s the US version of the cover and I love it too. Unfortunately I live in Scotland so I ended up with the UK cover, which is awful! I’m so glad I saw the US cover first otherwise I might not have given it a second look on Goodreads. I’m heading out to the States later this year though so I’m going to grab a copy there.

      • I am from Toronto but I temporarily moved to Spain for a couple of years and every time I order books off the European Amazon it let’s me choose between UK and US covers so try to get your hands on an US copy that way! And that’s exciting! Where are you heading to?

      • That’s cool. The UK Amazon doesn’t seem to have that option unfortunately. I’m flying into Seattle but then my friend and I will be travelling about Washington state and up to Canada since she lives near the border. I can’t wait!

  2. Pingback: The Liebster Blog Award (3) | Drifting Pages

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