“When She Woke”
By Hillary Jordan
Algonquin; 352 pages; $24.95
By Gina Webb
One look at the cover — the deep crimson profile of a beautiful young woman, half cloaked against an ink-black background — and you know the second novel by Hillary Jordan is tilted toward the fantastic.
No, it’s not about vampires. The title refers to the opening pages, with their tantalizing first words:
“When she woke, she was red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign — the color of newly shed blood.”
In this 21st-century version of “The Scarlet Letter, ” a young woman has committed a crime in a puritanical futuristic society where, in the equivalent of Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A, ” she is melachromed: injected with a virus that turns her skin red for a period of 16 years.
Jordan, who wrote about racism in “Mudbound, ” her award-winning first novel set in a rural community in post-World War II Mississippi, now expands the issue into a broader spectrum, where “Chromes” — their colors tailored to their offenses — face the same Jim Crow-style bigotry.
In addition to riffing off Nathaniel Hawthorne’s timeless tale of lust and punishment, Jordan mines sci-fi classics such as Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Orwell’s “1984″ to touch on gender, the relationship between church and state, and the nature of free will.
Set in the author’s hometown of Dallas, Texas, “When She Woke” describes a repressive dystopia still reeling from decades of bombs, plagues, droughts, a second Great Depression and infertility (the result of a four-year epidemic known as “the Great Scourge”). In the U.S., religious fundamentalists have come to power, their platform the future of the human race. In the fervor for reproduction, homosexuals receive “conversion therapy” and “Sanctity of Life” laws have overturned Roe v. Wade, making abortion illegal (again). Even after a cure is found for the Scourge, the restrictive — and faith-based — laws remain in place.
Which is why 25-year-old Hannah Payne wakes up as “a Red”: she is “a child-killer.” In flashbacks, we learn that she has always questioned her strict religious training and obedient role. Her passionate desire “for something indefinably more” led to an affair with the married pastor of a local megachurch; when she got pregnant, to protect her lover’s reputation, Hannah underwent a back-alley abortion. Because of strict government monitoring, the police weren’t far behind.
Hannah spends 30 days in prison, on daily display: New Chromes provide the public with its favorite form of reality TV. Once she’s freed, she can’t go home, so her parents arrange for her to spend six months in the Straight Path, a re-education center.
There, she’ll be safe, giving her father time to find her a job and a place to live. But when, as part of her recovery, Hannah is forced to re-enact her abortion and required to make a doll to stand in for her aborted baby (she names it “Pearl, ” of course), she opts for the street.
“Could the outside world be any worse than this?” she wonders.
Yes and no.
Yes, because as a Red, Hannah faces a gamut of prejudice and hatred. Chromes can’t get jobs, must live in Chromes-only communities (read: ghettos), have a high suicide rate and frequently become victims of vicious attacks carried out by vigilante groups. There’s no escape — a tracking device ensures that Hannah stays in Texas, and her chroming must be renewed at intervals lest a secondary effect kicks in, called “fragmentation, ” which causes insanity.
No, because Hannah — alone, defiant and poised to enter this hellish subclass — never quite descends into it. Which means that the grim vitality and menace of the first two-thirds of the book, where well-meaning family members shun her and self-righteous zealots work so rapaciously to break Hannah’s spirit, is more convincing than what’s to come.
Not that there aren’t many close calls. Hannah’s glimpses of the Chromes’ world prove it’s as bad as she has heard all her life, but, thanks to fate and the underground railroad that intervenes to help her, she may never have to live there.
So much goes right in “When She Woke” that Hannah’s immunity from real harm — though it does impart a certain young-adult flavor to the book — doesn’t undermine its page-turning suspense. After all, there’s a harrowing race to reach Canada (where the melachroming can be reversed), the looming presence of a brutal hate-crime group, a white slavery ring, threats of betrayal, and more romance to come.
Hannah continues to encounter challenges to her fundamentalist beliefs, notably in the guise of a lesbian resistance fighter named Simone and a female Episcopalian minister, both of whom raise questions about the individual versus the collective, a personal God to replace the unforgiving version Hannah carries in her head — and feels she has lost.
In conversation with Simone, Hannah doubts the existence of a benevolent, possibly feminist Being: “Hannah shook her head, stunned by the concept. There was only one God, you couldn’t just make up your own.”
It’s precisely this promise, however, of a “deeply personal” faith that becomes Hannah’s main focus, turning “When She Woke” into a compelling search for a path all her own and her punishment into a means of getting comfortable in her own, red skin.