Monday, March 14, 2022

the last book I read

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.

Hannah Payne is red. It's not a metaphor, still less a touch of sunburn, but instead evidence that she has been melachromed, a punishment meted out to criminals to ensure their instant recognisability by other, law-abiding members of society. Presumably in this vaguely dystopian future world, which appears to be both post-apocalyptic (Los Angeles has been taken out by some sort of nuclear device) and post-pandemic (a now-concluded virus outbreak that left a large percentage of the population sterile) prisons are a bit of an administrative headache and well, if members of the public decide to CLEANSE THE STREETS by knocking off a few melachromed individuals, no-one's going to judge them too harshly.

Especially the reds, red being the colour reserved for those convicted of killing - more minor crimes get yellow, the weird sex stuff gets blue, maybe purple for minor insurance fraud, teal for parking offences, I dunno. Anyway, Hannah's conviction wasn't for just your commonplace killing, but for having an abortion - an emotive and reviled crime in this society for a number of reasons; firstly there's been an uptick in religiosity as is standard in the wake of apocalyptic events, secondly the pandemic and the uncertainty over whether the human race would even survive has made voluntarily terminating a pregnancy a taboo act. Hannah's situation was somewhat complicated by her lover and the father of her child being one Aidan Dale, family friend, famous television evangelist and general pillar of American society, Hannah's sentence (i.e. the amount of time she has to walk around glowing like a just-cooked lobster) being increased by her refusal to name him during her trial. 

So here she is, released after a period of solitary confinement after the melachroming process and back out on the streets. Her father (unlike her mother, who has disowned her) is still looking out for her and books her into a sort of halfway house for melachromed women. Dad seems to genuinely have Hannah's best interests at heart but this turns out to be a terrifyingly fundamentalist (with the emphasis on the "mentalist") religious sect with a ruthlessly cruel and repressive regime just crying out for a climactic scene where Hannah throws off its shackles, throws a washstand through a window and flees, and sure enough that's what happens, more or less. 

While in the clutches of the sect Hannah has at least made a connection with someone she trusts, fellow red Kayla, and she tracks her down just in time to find her being dumped by her boyfriend and ripe for joining forces and facing an uncertain future together. A future that looks even more uncertain when Hannah and Kayla are abducted from a parking lot by some mysterious masked kidnappers. However it turns out that these may be the good guys after all, and were a few minutes ahead of some properly nasty vigilantes intent on either summarily rubbing them out or selling them into slavery.

Hannah and Kayla's abductors turn out to be the Novembrists, a radical group defending women's reproductive rights and therefore with a particular interest in Hannah's case. They provide escape routes to Canada (where more relaxed laws apply) for women in Hannah's situation but are ruthless of disposing of anyone they deem not to be of interest, i.e. Kayla. Hannah, however, finding some untapped reserves of assertiveness after a life of meek compliance, insists on Kayla coming along too.

The escape route to Canada from Texas involves various handovers between sympathetic groups administering various safe houses on the route north. Hannah and Kayla come a cropper at the first hurdle, though, as the charming Stanton who operates a safe house in Mississippi turns out to have a sideline in occasionally turning over the more attractive female escapees who pass through his hands to the highest bidder for a bit of the old sex slavery. Fortunately, just as Hannah and Kayla are being drugged and spirited away onto a boat to who knows where the Novembrists screech up and effect another nick-of-time rescue, though this time only of Hannah. In the aftermath of this Hannah is having none of this safe house nonsense, being handed around like a sack of spuds, and demands to be provided with the means of effecting her own escape. Reluctantly Simone, the head of the Novembrist operation, agrees to provide a vehicle and some supplies. 

Hannah has promised to adhere to the route they'd planned, but deviates in the vicinity of Washington DC for a brief and bittersweet reunion with Aidan - bittersweet because she realises he can't come with her and she has outgrown her need for him anyway. She then proceeds to a remote border location, abandons the vehicle and sets off through the snowy forest in the hope of linking up with the Novembrists' Canadian counterparts. 

This is first and foremost a book that invites comparison with a host of other books - most obviously for sophisticated literary types in smoking jackets who are not ignoramuses like me who think erudite is a kind of glue, it's a futuristic re-working of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, with lots of echoes from the main protagonist's name (Hannah Payne/Hester Prynne) onwards. It's also reminiscent of several seminal works of dystopian fiction, most obviously The Handmaid's Tale for the whole post-apocalyptic sterility thing and the intense focus on women's sexuality and fertility, The Chrysalids for the knowledge-denying religous sect and the long dangerous flight into exile under the guidance of a mysterious resistance group and perhaps Never Let Me Go for the slightly hand-wavey approach to describing any of the science underlying the central plot points. In particular the whole business about the implants which enable Chromes to be tracked and the corresponding jamming devices that the rebels have, and the need to get your melachroming topped up occasionally to prevent a descent into mental fragmentation and unrecoverable madness, seem to be occasionally forgotten and then remembered again according to the demands of the plot. It's unclear, for instance, how the topping-up is going to work once Hannah gets across the border into Canada and goes to ground there.

My main criticism here is that, oddly for a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, it's all a bit nice. What I mean by that is that despite the threat of a whole host of nasty types (including The Fist, a Chrome-hunting squad of which Hannah's brother-in-law seems to be a member) Hannah seems to drift along being conveniently rescued in the nick of time from various situations: the parking-lot abduction, the sex-slavery abduction in Mississippi. It was the Novembrists coming to her rescue on both those occasions, but there is also the kindly female priest who offers shelter and a nice glass of single malt as Hannah is trudging through the ice and snow for her final meeting with Aidan, and, most absurdly of all, the message from her Canadian rescuers right at the end that says yes, you're safe and oh, by the way, we've had word that your mate Kayla, last seen on a speedboat with her rapey kidnappers while in the early stages of Chrome-withdrawal mental fragmentation, is Absolutely Fine and safe and will be joining you shortly. It is also almost beyond the stretchiest bounds of plausibility that she could have arranged her last night of bittersweet valedictory boning with Aidan via electronic messaging without it being snooped by the authorities, who are ALL ABOUT the intrusive monitoring outside, apparently, of this one narratively-necessary circumstance.

It's bold, especially for an American, to write a novel whose plot revolves around abortion and to basically take the position that, well, it's not without some moral considerations but the overriding point is that it's a woman's choice and should remain one she can freely make. Indeed it's sometimes a bit bluntly polemical and heavy-handed in pursuit of this point, although I think this Washington Post review is a bit harsh:

primarily agitprop: ham-handed, disrespectful and quite dumb in places where it should be smart

I should say, as a counterpoint to all this, that it's very thrilling, Hannah is an appealing protagonist and it's an ideal quick read for someone who's just spent a month or so digesting Nostromo. I can't see an overriding reason to read this in preference to any of the other dystopian novels listed above, though, assuming you haven't already.

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