Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Before I Wake

by Robert J. Wiersema

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: one moment, a child is skipping along the pavement; the next, he or she is obliterated by a speeding car. In the instant that three-year-old Sherry Barrett becomes a hit-and-run casualty on a Victoria street, everything – the family, the future, the belief in life as ordered and meaningful – is shattered.

In his debut novel, Robert J. Wiersema (who frequently reviews for Q&Q) begins at the point of impact and follows the shock waves travelling out in widening circles. On the level of ordinary human experience, Karen and Simon Barrett’s marriage collapses under the strain of grief. In a larger moral universe, the tragedy plays out in less explicable ways. The Barretts struggle to accept their daughter’s irreversible coma, yet when the respirator is shut off, she continues against all odds to breathe. Though she fails to regain consciousness, her body quickly recovers. What’s more, anyone coming into contact with her is somehow also healed, even of serious or terminal illness.

Wiersema makes his fantastic premise plausible by anchoring it solidly in the ordinary. Dishes get washed, groceries are shopped for, the costs of Sherry’s care are accounted for. The multiple narrators – Sherry’s mother and father, her nurse, even the young man who ran her down – provide eyewitness accounts that all lend credibility to unfolding events. The most skeptical characters in the novel are Karen and Simon, such a thoroughly rational couple that they cannot even pray for their dying daughter. They reel in the face of occurrences that cannot be explained by science, as the unimaginable takes place daily before their eyes.

When word of Sherry’s extraordinary powers leaks out, matters rapidly spin out of control. The Barretts’ house and lawn are mobbed by supplicants. Sherry can even perform miracles at a distance – those who write in get cured as well as those who apply in person. Everyone in the world is about to beat a path to the Barretts’ door when trouble shows up in the form of rigid, unrelenting fundamentalism.

In this engrossing and carefully plotted novel, Wiersema calls upon a number of elements more commonly found in genre fiction. One of these is the willing suspension of disbelief. Before I Wake takes its place in the cultural landscape beside novels like The Lovely Bones or television series such as Joan of Arcadia. It also plugs into the current obsession with Christian mystery. Before I Wake has its own theological and metaphysical appeal, as Sherry Barrett’s tiny body becomes the battleground for the cadres of good and evil. Though God and Satan never quite come into it, there’s plenty of colourful skirmishing among lesser players, including one or two faces from Jesus’ old crowd. A cadaverous “stranger,” who may or may not be Judas, impersonates a high-ranking priest to halt the talk of miracles. Charging that the Barretts are extorting money for fraudulent cures, he is frighteningly successful at discrediting them and alienating their sources of support. He mobilizes Christian zealots to attack the Barretts’ house, as happy to burn the saintly child in her bed as an earlier mob was to give Christ the bum’s rush to the cross.

Meanwhile, the man who mowed Sherry down is so racked by guilt he is driven into a kind of living death, becoming a sort of ghost. In Wiersema’s clever trope, limbo is just down the street amongst the stacks in the public library, where the homeless mix with the damned. Their leader is a shambling fellow who goes by the name of Tim (a joke from Monty Python and the Holy Grail); he also answers to Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew of the New Testament.

By now we’re a long way from Kansas, and things get weirder. While there’s no doubt that Wiersema’s compassion and sympathy for his characters are genuine, and that he tells a cracking good tale, occasionally it’s just possible that he may be pulling our leg.

What’s especially curious (and Wiersema is clearly aware of this) is that Karen and Simon, the characters with whom the reader most closely identifies, never do give up their skeptical stance. Though they gratefully accept the miracles and the protection of the church, they are uncomfortable with Christian terminology and refuse to recognize the hand of God in any of the extraordinary events. Hungry for miracles and craving redemption, they are unable to pay the price of faith. Fortunately, they are saved by love.

Tags: Life of Pi, Yann Martel