Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Before I Wake, by Robert J. Wiersema

Published: August 2006

Finally got around to it: November 2010

“And what have you done?”

“Many things, Henry,” he said. “Time is long and old men forget…”

“That’s not an answer.”

“No, it’s Shakespeare.”

My introduction to Wiersema’s work came earlier this year when, after being introduced to the CZP catalogue, I found a copy of The World More Full of Weeping at my local White Rock Indigo. A mildly traumatic story about a boy lost in the woods behind his home in much the same way that his father had gotten lost in them many years earlier, The World More Full of Weeping is a sucker punch of a novella: it strikes unexpectedly, and over the course of a mere 70 or so pages, leaves you breathless and distraught. Now with his latest book, Bedtime Stories, on the market (which I hope to have a chance to read in the next few weeks), I wanted to go back and see where Wiersema’s career as a writer began.

First published back in 2006, Before I Wake tells the story of Sherry Barrett and the single moment in time that changes not only her world, but the worlds of her parents, her parents friends and family, even the entire country. The book opens with Sherry being struck and abandoned in a hit and run accident that leaves her comatose. Accepting that she has experienced brain death, her parents Simon and Karen decide to remove her from life support. Just as they do, she begins to breathe on her own, and their little miracle of a child becomes one in the literal, spiritual and religious definitions of the word.

A couple things to note right off the bat: though it is nearly 400 pages, this is a one-sitting read. Make no mistake about that. The writing is tight, intelligent, and oozes realism without ever resorting to extremes or overtly dramatic moments and gestures.

Speaking of realism, the characters are some of the most genuinely mature I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The broken marriage slowly facing redefinition, the other woman that never once feels like the stereotypical “other”, the religious zealots with a disturbing (and potentially supernatural) depth to them that is not so easily explained away—especially not when one considers the physical nature of certain characters to some, and the total lack of physical presence those same characters might have when placed in the sights of others.

Before I Wake is a book of miracles that doesn’t rely on the reader being a believer in any way, shape or form. Its weight is transcribed through the completely down-to-earth rationality and actions of its leads, and that weight is what not only grounds the spirituality and supernatural elements to the very real Victoria, BC setting of the book, but also allows for those elements to enhance the story in very unexpected ways.

Wiersema writes with a sincerity that cannot be forced. There isn’t an instance where the tone is betrayed or subverted for the means of addressing something that the characters wouldn’t be addressing themselves. The questions we would ask are the ones they are asking—a critical conceit seemingly absent in most books that attempt to marry the real and the spiritual.

What matters most though with a story like this is whether or not it was able to sink its teeth into me. So here it is: one sitting, and by the end my eyes were watering and it certainly wasn’t from staring at the pages for too long. This is a book that shouldn’t be missed by anyone. My anticipation for Bedtime Stories is now through the roof.

Before I Wake is one of my notable experiences of the year. I can’t recommend it enough.

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