When We Wake by Karen Healey is certainly an ambitious book that attempts to raise questions on immigration, race, social justice, environmental issues, gender issues, religion, and scientific ethics. That’s quite a lot to bite off in a single apocalyptic/dystopian novel! Yes, I would say it does a better job than I would have expected for such a broad range of subjects. However, because it touched on so many interesting ideas, I could have done without the teen romance nearly required of any YA book these days.
In addition to the challenge of exposing readers to so many topical questions, the book is also unusual in that the female protagonist, Teegan, is a Beatles fan, so every chapter heading is a Beatles song, which reminded me a bit of Julie Taymor’s movie Across the Universe, which used the bands’ music to move us through the storyline, though When We Wake does this to a much lesser degree.
In addition to loving the Beatles, Teegan has just fallen in love with Dalmar, her brother’s best friend at the beginning of the story. The young lovebirds join Teegan’s radical best friend Alex, at a rally for climate change. The irony is that Teegan is mostly there because of her friendship with Alex and her love for Dalmar, rather than for strong convictions, so when she is killed by a sniper aiming at the Prime Minister; it is kind of a shock. After all, how many books start with the main character being killed? So is the story told in flashback? Yes and no. You see, Teegan donated her body to medical science and after being shot she was in the right place at the right time. A new cryogenic program was launching, and so although she technically died, she was frozen and brought back a hundred years in the future when science and technology had advanced enough to repair the damage she had sustained.
Although science and technology have advanced enough to give her a second life, it comes at a high price, both literally and figuratively. The cost of bringing Teegan back is so high that the government wants to turn her into a PR story to support their program to bring back fallen soldiers. Teegan’s father was a soldier killed in action, so she is sympathetic toward the program; however, the government is trying to control every aspect of her life. In addition, her ‘revival’ has made her a target of abuse for several groups, including a religious group and a No Migrants group. The religious group sees her as an abomination who has countervened the will of God by being revived and they want her to commit suicide. The latter considers her a migrant even though she was born in Australia, in their eyes she is a ‘migrant’ from another century, which shows how extreme the issue of immigration has become. In fact, Australia has a strict no migrant policy as the world’s water and food supplies have severely diminished. Anyone trying to enter illegally is thrown into refugee camps with appalling conditions. Teegan did not sign up for any of this, when she filled out her donor card, she thought her organs would be harvested and given to people who needed them when she died, or her body would be used to teach medical students. After all, no one was aware of the government’s special cryogenic program in her time. Plus although she is technically over a hundred years old, she is still a teenage girl with all that entails and for her it was just yesterday that she was with her family, friends and new boyfriend.
I think the book could have spent more time exploring the horror of waking up a century later when everyone you know and loved is gone. Not only gone, but Teegan reads about them online and to know their lives went on without her has to be a highly uncomfortable feeling, after all everyone wants to be remembered and deeply mourned. While Teegan is assigned a doctor, Marie, for any medical needs, she doesn’t seem to have a counselor to help her deal with not only crushing loss, but having to transition to life in another century. That’s a story I would have liked told. Instead, very little space is devoted to that, and the book is more about the social and environmental issues mentioned in the first paragraph, plus that teen romance, cutting out the romance could have left space for more interesting questions.
The best part of the book for me is when Teegan loses it during a televised interview screaming at the audience that she thought people in the future would have done more to stave off the problems that she knew from her own time. That people would have cared enough to create real change and make the future a better world. As she shouts at the viewing audience at her big TV interview, “I am ashamed of you! You are not the future I wanted. I can’t believe the same stupid shit is still happening. I wanted you to be better! Be better!” Let’s hope that future generations do not say that of us….