Review: When We Wake

When We Wake by Karen Healey. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: “My name is Tegan Oglietti, and on the last day of my first lifetime, I was so, so happy.” And Tegan, sixteen, was happy. No, her life wasn’t perfect or flawless. Her father, a soldier, had died when she was little. But she had a best friend, and a boyfriend, and a brother and a mother and her music and free running and all that goes away when she dies.

She wakes up in 2128 and it’s all gone. She died, and she thought her donor card meant her organs would be used to keep others alive, but instead her body was used to test cryonics and it worked because now, over a hundred years later, she’s alive. She’s the first  person who has been woken up and she’s in a government lab and everyone she knew is dead.

The world is a very different place, and it’s not just that no one knows who the Beatles are. Australia is not the country she remembered, and it’s not just the climate or slang that has changed. It’s the Australia for Australians movement that bars any type of immigration; it’s the fringe religious group convinced Tegan has no soul and should kill herself; it’s the secrets being kept from her about what the cryonics project is really about.

Tegan is more than a body. She refuses to be bossed around, to be treated as if she is owned by the government. She insists on trying to have a life, again; she goes to school, makes friends. But the secrets are still there. Tegan’s not content to just go with the flow; she’s the type of girl who asks questions and will follow the truth no matter what.

The Good: “We all begin with our past.”

Where to start? Let’s start with Tegan, and the way she shares that one perfect day to show how happy she was in the past. Tegan is a great, nuanced character. That shared day allows us to see Tegan at her best; or, at least, what she thinks of as her best. Both conventional and unconventional; both going with the status quo but also questioning; valuing friendships and love. When her life ends, and her new life begins, we, like Tegan, have a reference point of who and what she was, as she tries to rebuild her life. We understand what she mourns. I liked Tegan, and I rooted for her, and admired her dedication to doing the right thing, not the easy thing.

Then there is how the story is told: yes, Tegan is telling the story, and it’s clear it’s a little bit after the events in When We Wake, but this is not straightforward narrative. At one point, Tegan tells us something she learns about her future world and accepts it and so did I, as the reader, but then Tegan as narrator tells us: “I can’t believe I was such an idiot.” So, she is letting us know — not all we are reading is to be trusted. This is not just about Tegan’s rebirth into a strange new world; it’s about Tegan realizing there’s more she doesn’t know than simply how to use the toilet. (Don’t ask.)

OK — the toilet. First, though, Tegan is sixteen in 2027. Even her “present,” her “now” is our future. This allows things to be familiar enough — just as there is enough familiar between 1999 and 2013 that certain things are the same, as familiar to the reader as to Tegan. Her love of the Beatles, the foods her mom cooks. Somethings are different: the weather has gotten worse and warmer, for example. Why even set it in the future? Partly, it’s to have the scientific and medical knowledge available to freeze Tegan but not to have enough knowledge to wake her up any sooner. Partly, it’s to set the stage for what Tegan discovers about the future in terms of the military, environment, and government.

Oh, and about the cryonics. I was super-creeped out that Tegan signing her donor card meant this happened to her. I perhaps got a little bit over-obsessed about what it means, exactly, to donate one’s body for science and the complications.

So. The toilet. Who would think that in just over a hundred years toilets would be that different? But think back a hundred years, and yes, the little things and the big things have changed. The Beatles? No one has heard about them. I loved discovering the world along with Tegan. There are good things about the future and for a while Tegan thinks that her old friends and family helped make the world a better place. Tegan tries hard to adjust, to create a new life, to understand why it’s happening…. And why is it happening?

As Tegan learns more about the present, she realizes that while some prejudices are gone (Tegan herself is white, but her new and old friends are a diverse group) others have replaced them. (One funny thing: her new friends assuming she shares the prejudices of the past.) There is no perfect world. And  yes, I’m dancing around the secrets she discovers, so that you can discover them with her. It’s both about the way the world is now and why she was brought back, and then what she is willing to do when she learns the truth.

Healey is from New Zealand and When We Wake is set in Australia. Australia is the center, and it is refreshing for a book not to be US-centric. This becomes even more true when more is revealed about current world politics. Short version: the USA is not at the top of the heap.

When We Wake works as a standalone, Tegan waking up like Sleeping Beauty. There will be a sequel, from the perspective of a different character.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers; Far Beyond Reality; Forever Young Adult.


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