The Girl Who Died: Karen Healey’s When We Wake

When We Wake is New Zealand author Karen Healey’s third novel, after Guardian of the Dead and The Shattering. It’s an excellent YA novel. It’s also really excellent science fiction: I stayed awake far later than I would otherwise have done to finish it.

In 2027, sixteen-year-old Tegan Oglietti dies. A hundred years in the future, her cryonically preserved body is revived by the Australian military—the first successful cryonic revival. The Girl Who Died is an instant celebrity and the government’s favourite guinea pig. All she wants to do is grieve her old life and try to build some semblance of a “normal” new one, but with her footsteps dogged by the media, a fundamentalist sect who believes she should commit suicide, and a minor case of futureshock, it’s not that easy. But Tegan’s stubborn. She goes to school, she makes friends. Bethari, the army-brat young journalist. Joph, the brilliant chemistry student walking around in a haze of her own creations. Abdi, the talented musician from Somalia who’s almost as much an outsider as Tegan is in immigrant-hostile 22nd-century Australia.

But the military hasn’t told Tegan the truth about why they chose to revive her. When she begins to discover the secrets they’ve been keeping from her… Well, it turns out that military secrets have horrifying consequences, and not just for Tegan herself.

This is, by me, a really good book. It works on several levels of engagement: I’m trying, still, to disentangle the things that I admire about it now, as a work of literature that appeals to me as an adult, from the things that should make it work for its target audience. I think it comes down to voice. Healey really nails voice. Not only her own authorial voice, which we’ve seen before in her other work, but the voice of When We Wake’s protagonist, Tegan. It’s distinctive, and compelling, and also has a sly, retrospective I’m-not-telling-you-everything-at-once quality, a hinted frame narrative, the reasons for which we discover in the conclusion.

The adolescent friendships, relationships, embarrassments and concerns, come across as spot on. Tegan’s friendship with Bethari, and how Bethari’s finding her sexually attractive as well, plays out realistically. It’s only a moment in the narrative: but it’s the kind of natural, queer-friendly moment that a whole lot of novels might either elide entirely or blow up into a Big Teachable Point. (Perhaps my experience in this regard is slightly out-of-date, but one goes with what one knows.)

There’s also a lot of pointed social critique in When We Wake. Healey’s future Australia isn’t a dystopia: in terms of gendered and religious tolerance, and environmental consciousness, it’s portrayed as explicitly better than Tegan’s original time. But thanks to climate change, a lot of quiet resource struggle is going on in the background, and in part thanks to this, anti-immigrant sentiment has reached a vicious peak. No one receives resident visas to the future Australia anymore, only temporary or student ones. Illegal immigrants who reach Australia are kept in detention camps, about which the media doesn’t report. This affects—strains—Tegan’s friendship with Abdi.

Social tensions about resources, the status of unrecognised immigrant persons, and survival in the face of climate change all come together in the climax of Tegan’s story.

I have a handful of minor criticisms. The emotional freight of some of the interactions between Tegan and her friends on occasion comes across as a little heavy-handed, and the climax, for me, happens a little too quickly. But on the whole? This is a very good book.

A sequel, When We Rise, is expected, but When We Wake stands on its own.

When We Wake is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. It is available March 5.


Find Liz Bourke @hawkwing_lb on Twitter and at her blog.

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