When She Woke is a dystopian themed adult fiction inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. And like Hawthorne's book, the main character, Hannah Payne, is publicly condemned and ostracized for her perceived crime and forced to wear scarlet as a badge of shame, yet refuses to name the man who responsible for her pregnancy. When She Woke also explores similar themes of religion, adultery, and criminality as did The Scarlet Letter.
After being convicted of murdering her unborn child, Hannah goes through a process called melachroming which entails a convicted criminal having their skin color altered to announce the type of crime they committed. She wakes to find herself in a solitary room with only a shower, sleeping platform, and a camera in the wall that will, for her first thirty days as a “Chrome,” monitor and broadcast her every move to the entire world.
The dystopian society was one of extreme religious conservatism and the one aspect of this that almost didn't fit for me was that in such an almost Puritanical society, would they really rely so heavily on technology? Otherwise, imagining a society built on the tenets of extreme fundamentalistic Christian beliefs was downright frightening. Hannah was forced to contend with her guilt over making choices that not only went against every principal she had been taught to believe in her strict evangelical upbringing, but also put her in the untenable position of losing her friends, family, reputation, and possibly her own life. She struggled to reconcile her actions with her religious beliefs and wondered if she would ever feel a connection to God again.
I found When She Woke to be extremely thought provoking. The idea of melachroming intrigued me. There is some part of me that is not fully convinced that this is such a bad idea as it would effectively punish the criminal through public humiliation yet save the state the expense of housing all but the most violent offenders. In the book, there was a lower life expectancy for some crimes or “colors” such as Red (murderers) and Greens (Child Molesters) while those convicted of less serious crimes (Yellows) were less feared and hated but still ostracized. Right or wrong, it was certainly a fascinating concept to consider.
With all of the heavy and thought provoking themes in When She Woke, it still managed to be an exciting and engaging read. I devoured this book in just one day, unable to put it down. I knew before the first hundred pages that I wouldn't be getting any sleep that night until I finished it. It sinks its hooks in early and never lets go as it takes you on an action packed and emotionally stirring journey. When She Woke takes a fairly clear stance on the topic of abortion, however, I don't believe it was presented in such a biased way that those who differ in their beliefs would be unable to enjoy it. When She Woke presents the story from a clearly feminist perspective and this may be off-putting for some but I found it to be an inspiring story about the struggle from oppression to empowerment. This will definitely be shelved with my all time favorites. I would recommend this to fans of dystopian themed fiction, those who enjoyed the Handmaids Tale or The Scarlet Letter, and those who enjoy fiction that focuses on socially relevant issues.