Before I Wake

by Robert J. Wiersema
384 pages,
ISBN: 0679313737

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Review of Before I Wake
by Nancy Wigston

Before I Wake by Robert J. Wiersema (Random House Canada, 384 pages, $32.95, cloth, ISBN: 0679313737). On a lovely spring day in Victoria, three-year-old Sherry Barrett becomes the victim of a hit-and-run. Driver Henry Denton was speeding home to his family; overwhelmed by guilt, he phones 911 to confess, then jumps off a cliff into the sea. First-person narratives (and newspaper and phone records) drive the plot, with Karen, Sherry's mother, Simon, her father, and Mary, Simon's mistress, figuring prominently in early scenes. Things look bleak. Yet when the distraught mother and cheating father decide to pull the plug, a strange thing happens. Sherry doesn't die. She doesn't wake up, but she doesn't die. Neither does Henry.
"A miracle," says a wondering nurse when Sherry cheats death, and her remark is overheard by a lurking pseudo-priest. Sherry's conception after many years of trying was called a miracle by her parents, and the word will appear again as the plot unfolds. Wiersema knits elements of Christian lorełthe devilish priest, the doomed souls whom the now-invisible Henry meets in the library, the cures worked by the touch of a comatose child who smells of liliesłinto a narrative that includes reasonable, modern, agnostic adults. What would you do when the terminally ill show up at your door, hoping against hope that your sleeping child can cure them?
The energy of this novel works so seductively that we have no time to question the hocus-pocus, and, in a clever stroke, Wiersema makes the pious into the enemy, as the wicked priest organizes protests, spreads slanders, and calls for violence against the Barretts. Of course the evil one has the best lines, so when the real priest finally shows up, it's an anticlimax. The novel's grounding in real-life drama morphs into a well-wrought supernatural tale (the doomed would hang out at the libraryłthey do in my town), and Sherry, like all blameless, beautiful children, works every miracle she can in the time she's allotted.

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