They say there are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the truth. In Before I Wake, debut novelist Robert J. Wiersema cleverly introduces a multitude of voices to tell this astonishing story of loss, redemption and forgiveness. And the truth? Well, when miracles start happening around Sherry Barrett, a three-year-old girl in a coma, explanations of a rational kind no longer seem important.
Injured by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street, Sherry Barrett lies in a hospital where her doctors say she will never wake up. Her distraught parents, Karen and Simon, make the painful decision to take her off life support. But when they do, Sherry spontaneously begins breathing on her own, the first of many miraculous events to occur.
Henry Denton, the driver who struck Sherry, is haunted by the accident and attempts to take his own life, only to be saved by an unexplained force. Sherry’s nurse discovers that the little girl has the power to heal. When word of her gift leaks, the sick begin lining up to be saved and a mysterious stranger sets his sights on vanquishing the believers and the Barretts.
Before I Wake delicately brings together grandiose leaps of faith with the fragility of every day moments. There’s a fly-on-the-wall quality in Wiersema’s observations, as his realistically flawed characters struggle with guilt, self-loathing and belief while they go about their daily lives. The novel’s fractured narrative style is propulsive and unexpected at every turn, and succeeds in raising questions about times of great faith, and what happens when they happen to the most unlikely of people.
“I believe in miracles — we see them around us all the time,” Wiersema says. “I believe in not having the answers, in there being forces beyond our understanding.”
Robert J. Wiersema has always been a storyteller. As a child growing up in Agassiz, B.C., the term was something of a euphemism, as he had, for a time, an unsteady relationship with the truth. In short, he lied. He would lie about anything, anytime. And the funny part was, it never worked. He was always found out and always had to bear the punishment for his off-the-cuff fictions. But that didn’t stop him. He gradually learned to channel this impulse into creating actual stories. The first he describes as “the worst sort of spy fiction.”
Many stories later, Wiersema enrolled at the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing Workshop, but later decided to complete an English degree with a split focus on contemporary Canadian fiction and post-structuralist literary theory. To support himself as a student, he became a bookseller, which he credits as being the best thing he could have done for his writing. He realized that the lessons he was taught in class during the day were at odds with the interactions he had with real readers in the store. This changed the way he wrote and gave him the motivation to tell stories that people would want to read.
In 1999, Wiersema began reviewing books for Quill & Quire and went on to become a respected book critic for the Vancouver Sun, the Globe & Mail, the Ottawa Citizen and various other newspapers. This exposed his writing to the public and the book industry, and proved to be a valuable advantage when it came time to shop his debut novel. Before I Wake was published by Random House Canada in 2006 and released in the U.S. and U.K. in early 2007.
Unlike the punishments of his youth, Wiersema currently enjoys all the rewards his storytelling brings him. He lives with his wife Cori and son Xander in Victoria and is fond of cigars, loves music and talks about all of the above on his blog: robertjwiersema.com/blog. He wakes up every morning at or before 4 a.m. to write, and is working on a collection of short fiction, entitled Seven Crow Stories, and a new novel about the power of reading, of books and of words. He continues to write reviews and 2007 marked his tenth year as a bookseller, event coordinator and PR person for Victoria’s Bolen Books.
“I don’t envision myself leaving either bookselling or reviewing behind,” Wiersema admits. “I like being a part of the conversation, a part of the on-going unfolding of writing in this country. I like putting books in the hands of readers, bringing authors together with their readers, weighing in on the books themselves. I’m a lifer. "
“Robert Wiersema . . . has written an accomplished first novel, the sort of book veteran novelists might well envy. . . . Before I Wake is deceptively easy to read because it is so well written and so emotionally engaging. It is not, however, an easily forgotten book. It will haunt you long after you’ve lent it to a friend. And lend it you will, because it is too good not to share.”
“We go along for this unusual ride – that takes us to purgatory and awakens images of the inquisition – because we trust Wiersema’s consummate skill: a talent that makes him one of our most promising and original voices.”
–The Gazette (Montreal)
"…rivetting debut novel…Wiersema has crafted a literary, supernatural thriller that grips the reader in a chokehold on page one and doesn’t let go until the very last line…Before I Wake is a classic thriller: creepy in all the right places and deliciously suspenseful. Beyond that, it has great emotional depth and resonance."
–The Globe and Mail
"Before I Wake is a stunning debut. Robert Wiersema's novel is original, thought-provoking and downright wonderful."
–Michael Connelly, author of The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer
"Through a tale that is both intimate and profound, Robert J. Wiersema reminds us there is magic in truth, and truth in the fantastic. Before I Wake is an edge-of-your-seat debut that is never faint of heart."
–Ami McKay, author of The Birth House
"I wept over this book as I read it, and I'm still haunted by it. Wiersema’s compassion for us all shines through in writing that is vivid and very often disturbingly powerful. He is a beautiful writer, and this is a beautiful book."
–Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of The Cure for Death by Lightning, A Recipe for Bees and A Rhinestone Button
"I read this book in less than three days, over the Christmas holidays with a house full of family and friends, and every time I had to put it down, I found myself compiling lists of people for whom I wanted to buy it. It captured me from the opening page and kept me going, wanting more, because it is a wonderful story, superbly told. The tight, tersely written chapters with their constantly changing points of view had me totally enthralled, because the characters are all utterly believable; every one of them rings true, with no miscues. A wonderful novel from a storyteller who knows what being a master of the craft entails."
–Jack Whyte, author of the Dream of Eagles series
"Inventively told using cinematic jump cuts and fantastical interventions, Before I Wake provocatively dances along the lines between faith and science, life and death. Robert Wiersema’s first novel shows a writer possessed with the kind of storytelling instincts that make you care about the answer to the one question that really counts: What happens next?"
–Andrew Pyper, author of The Wildfire Season