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Before I Wake
by Robert J. Wiersema
Random House Canada
384 pages, $32.95

“My hands were shaking as I carefully cut open the box, as I pulled the flaps open.”

This is how Robert J. Wiersema describes his nervous excitement at receiving the first copies of his debut novel, Before I Wake, earlier this month. It was a moment he’d been dreaming of since deciding to be a writer when he was seven or eight.

A Victoria bookseller by day and a regular reviewer in these pages, he will probably feel equally anxious as he opens this paper to the Books section this morning. So as not to unnecessarily prolong his agony, let me offer congratulations. Before I Wake is a strong debut that showcases a writer with a creative mind and a willingness to let his story unravel to its fullest extent. While not a perfect book by any means, it is definitely deserving of attention.

Like most good stories, this one opens with a bang—a hit-and-run accident that nearly takes the life of three-year-old Sherilyn Barrett. Her distraught parents wait at her hospital bedside where she lies in a coma. Karen, her mother, is devastated by the guilt of knowing that she’d let go of Sherry’s hand in the crosswalk only to watch her run directly into the path of a speeding pick-up truck. Sherry’s father, Simon, a lawyer, is distant and distracted, both by his work and by one of his co-workers, Mary, with whom he is having an affair.

Sherry was Simon and Karen’s little miracle, a baby who came against unlikely odds after years of trying to conceive, and who barely survived a premature birth. And so it is doubly tragic that they are now facing Sherry’s probable death as respirator-induced pneumonia sets in and brain activity disappears. The doctor tells them that Sherry will never recover, and so they make the awful decision to remove her from life support.

And then, a real miracle occurs. That’s the only way to describe it, although the doctor’s words are “spontaneous remission.” Sherilyn Barrett begins breathing on her own, and the pneumonia that had been clogging her lungs disappears. She stays alive, even though she does not wake up from her coma. Her parents take her home, but her unchanging status halfway between life and death adds to the tension between them. Simon finally admits his infidelity and moves out to be with his girlfriend.

So far, this sounds like a typical Canadian novel, rife with family tragedy, infidelity, etc., but two things happen that make it different. First of all, we are introduced to Henry Denton, the driver of the truck that hit Sherry. Unable to cope with the guilt of what he has done, Henry decides to kill himself, but when he leaps off a cliff, something—some force—literally pulls him back and keeps him on solid ground. He soon learns, however, that he is not so solid himself any more. Henry has become a ghost, condemned to live forever, observing those around him, but unable to interact with them.

And something strange also happens in the Barrett household. Ruth Page, the nurse who helps Karen take care of Sherry, notices her chronic arthritis disappear, almost overnight. On a whim, Ruth invites her terminally ill sister over to the house, and sure enough, her cancer disappears. This little girl frozen in a coma has somehow developed the power to heal. Word gets out, and soon the Barrett house is inundated with people suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses, all of whom hope to be healed by the miraculous girl. Alongside these pilgrims, however, comes a group of religious protestors led by a mysterious figure who calls himself Father Peter, and who will stop at nothing to reveal this so-called miracle to be a fraud.

Of these two unconventional storylines, the idea that Sherry has somehow developed the ability to heal is interesting and relatively believable. This sort of thing happens in our world—Wiersema acknowledges on his website that the original inspiration for this story was a newspaper article about a catatonic girl who people believed had the power to heal. The arrival of this aspect of the story feels like a fresh and unexpected twist on what otherwise was shaping up to be a fairly clichéd and sentimental novel.

The other thread involving Henry Denton’s ghost world, however, veers into less plausible territory—and continues around that bend into fantastical territory well away from what might be expected given the early part of the story.

Applying a label to Before I Wake is difficult. Because of its more fantastical elements, it resembles a (mostly bloodless) Stephen King novel or perhaps one of Neil Gaiman’s less fantastical books. It is also reminiscent of The Beautiful Dead End (2002) by another Victoria writer, Clint Hutzulak, which also involves characters caught in a sort of afterlife, but to be honest, Hutzulak’s book achieves a much higher literary voice.

Is it a problem that Before I Wake is hard to pigeon-hole? Perhaps not. However, readers attracted by its conventional CanLit-style cover art and back-cover recommendations from literary authors like Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Andrew Pyper and Ami McKay, may be surprised by what they actually end up reading. They might be delightfully surprised, or they might be turned off by what could be called science fiction or fantasy. One could blame the publisher’s marketing department for the way they are selling the book, or maybe it’s a case of the writer himself not quite getting it right.
In spite of these reservations, I am not rescinding my congratulations. Wiersema handles his multiple characters’ voices reasonably well, and there are no slow patches in the well-constructed plot. My only caveat, however, is that potential readers should know what sort of book to expect when they crack the cover.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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