For his debut novel, Robert Wiersema has set himself up against multiple challenges. First, how to tackle subject matter that is generally the domain of manipulative tearjerkers? Then there’s the more-than-subtle hint of the supernatural, which if not handled with subtlety ends up striking a sequence of increasingly false notes. The miracle (to use a metaphor that comes up often in this book) is not that Before I Wake is a great novel, for though interesting, it has its fair share of flaws. No, the miracle is that Wiersema dodges enough literary bullets to establish himself as a writer of promise with the potential to accomplish something great.
All it takes is a moment’s hesitation to land 3-year-old Sherry Barrett into a deep coma after a hit-and-run accident. But that hesitation cracks open the fault line between her parents, lawyer Simon and homemaker Karen. The early chapters of Before I Wake show in absorbing detail how a couple once deeply in love has slowly come to ruin, even when there is no specific blame to assign. Simon may cheat on his wife, but his actions fall somewhere in between caddishness and nobility. Karen may resent having to feel she must choose between her husband’s needs and her daughter’s welfare, but her actions are fully in line with her personality. And Mary, a young associate at Simon’s firm who ends up his lover, must grapple with her own complex choices. She is no mere “other woman” but someone looking for love amidst emotional land mines.
Simon and Karen’s marriage crumples, but something less tangible and more shocking emerges to draw the reader’s attention from domestic drama. Their child Sherry, it turns out, is a possible conduit between the living world and the one beyond—a discovery made by Karen’s sister when her ailments suddenly disappear. The word spreads to a friend, then another, and soon a cavalcade of people equal parts ill and desperate arrive at Sherry’s bedside. Could a little girl have the power to heal with almost Christ-like abilities? Wiersema, to his credit, doesn’t fish around for a tangible answer; he merely spins his story in the direction it needs to go, leaving the reader to discern a level of plausibility most comfortable.
As a family drama and a meditation on life and death, Before I Wake offers much to like. Where the novel falters is in its thriller-esque elements, embodied by a rogue priest named Father Peter who seems to represent dark forces wanting to snuff out Sherry’s life. That a healer could be seen as a dangerous entity is all too believable, but the manner in which Father Peter goes about his duties, inciting protests and eventually violence, seems too reminiscent of the cloddish plotting and hysteria of The Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy-minded suspense novels. If Father Peter and his disciples had been rendered as real people with better motivations, this plot strand would have had more impact. Instead, I found myself skipping these parts to return to the fate of the Barretts and those closest to them.
A bit better, but still somewhat confusing was the role played by Henry Denton, the man responsible for Sherry’s life-threatening accident. Henry’s pain is palpable and his guilt heart-wrenching, but Wiersema doesn’t quite build up the man’s role in a bridge between current- and after-lives. This narrative strand has an appealing dream-like quality but again, struck me as more filler than necessity.
Ultimately, Wiersema creates an intriguing novel that’s part literary, part supernatural thriller. It’s full of ambition and ideas and subtle philosophy that only occasionally deviates into repetitive tropes. Before I Wake, like many first novels, is perhaps an assembly of parts more than a cohesive sum, but it portends a bright career for the Victoria-based writer.
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