jacket image for When She WokeWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Published by Algonquin Books

Hannah Payne has always been a good girl and followed the rules of her family and of her society. But when she’s convicted of murder for having her married lover’s baby aborted, her skin is dyed red to broadcast her crime, and her shame, to the world. Despite the pressure she receives from the press and her family, she refuses to give up the baby’s father’s identity, and because of that she becomes a Red, the worst class of criminals. She must now find her own way in the world, as her family and friends don’t associate with Reds, and along the way she begins to question the values and beliefs she’d previously taken for granted.

From the first page of When She Woke, in which Hannah wakes up in a stark, cold room with bright red skin and cameras filming her every move, I was hooked. I could not put this book down, not necessarily because of the action (although there was some) but more because of how intrigued I was by this world Jordan created. The thing about it is that the ideals this society holds dear aren’t too far off from what we value now. There are plenty of people in our world who would prefer women who get abortions to be convicted of murder, and Jordan just took that idea to the extreme. But it didn’t seem all that extreme as I was reading it, it seemed very much, terrifyingly, possible. Which is probably what made the book so compelling to me – I could imagine these attitudes being a basis for our laws and the idea of that is so scary to me.

The second reason I was hanging on to Jordan’s every word was the character of Hannah. She was the kind of character I can always get on board with, as I saw aspects of my own personality in hers. Like Hannah, growing up I was the quintessential “good girl” (and still am, to a degree) who always tried to please my parents, teachers, etc. But like Hannah, I have of course made mistakes along the way and I cannot imagine suffering the kind of punishment for my mistakes that she has to suffer for hers. It broke my heart to see this formerly happy, confident girl become completely shunned by her family and friends and be forced to make it on her own. At the same time, I loved reading about Hannah’s journey to forming her own beliefs and building up her own sense of self, independent from what she’d always been taught.

I know that some readers have found fault with certain aspects of When She Woke, but I absolutely loved every second of it. I very much admire Hillary Jordan’s ability to craft a unique story with a compelling narrator and excellent writing to boot. Highly recommended.