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.”
About the author
ROBERT J. WIERSEMA is a writer of fiction and non-fiction and a reviewer who contributes regularly to several national newspapers. He is the best-selling author of two novels: Before I Wake and Bedtime Story and a non-fiction book about Bruce Springsteen, Walk Like a Man. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
- Short-listed, Sunburst Award
Excerpt: Before I Wake (by (author) Robert J. Wiersema)
I only looked away for a moment.
That one phrase haunts a parent when something tragic happens to their child. It echoes in the mind like an accusation. Or a curse.
“I only turned my back for a second, but somehow he managed to reach the handle of the frying pan . . .”
“I just went inside to answer the phone. I thought the gate to the pool was locked . . .”
It’s a cry for understanding, a challenge to the universe. I hear the guilt, the recrimination, and I understand: If only I had been paying attention . . .
He wouldn’t be burned.
She wouldn’t have drowned.
I didn’t look away.
We believe that vigilance can prevent tragedy, that if we pay attention, we will be strong enough, wise enough, fortunate enough to counter fate.
“If I had been watching . . .”
It’s a lie.
It’s a trick that the universe plays, a way of increasing the guilt and despair while seeming to explain it away.
I didn’t look away. I wish I had.
Sometimes we can only watch, mute witnesses as our lives change in a moment, in a heartbeat, in the time it takes a three-year-old girl to take a single step from our side.
I let go of her hand.
I didn’t look away.
And my baby is gone.
“Jubilee, this is A32. We have two, repeat two, en route. Hit and run. ETA four minutes. Clear.”
“Copy, A32. Please advise condition. Clear.”
“Copy, Jubilee. Advise one adult female. Some bleeding. Shock. Holding stable. Clear.”
“Copy, A32. Advise.”
“Copy, Jubilee. Advise one female child, three years. Severe head trauma with decreased level of consciousness and spontaneous respirations. Severe bleeding from cranium. Clear.”
“Copy, A32. Trauma One will meet you at the gate. Clear.”
Sherry and I were walking to the mall, holding hands.
Hillside Shopping Centre is only a few blocks from the house, and every Wednesday morning in the food court clowns and jugglers and musicians perform for the kids. I had dressed Sherry in her little blue dress, the one with Winnie the Pooh on the front. She had chosen it herself: “my sky-blue dress, because it matches the sky.” I zipped up the back carefully, so as not to catch any of her wispy hair between the metal teeth. I tickled her gently under the arms as I finished.
Was that the last time I heard her laugh?
Sherry loved the clowns, and the noise of all the other children packed into the food court was like a wall of pure joy. We usually had a snack, a muffin or some french fries, before we walked home, and by the time we got back it would be nap time for both of us.
It was a beautiful spring day. The sky was a clear, cold blue, but there was no chill to the air. In fact, the air was heavy with warmth and growth and green and flowers as we walked through our neighborhood. We stopped to pet familiar cats, to smell the lilacs just in flower, to pick up stones that weighed down my pockets.
I checked both ways before we stepped into the crosswalk on Hillside. I always do. The street is too wide to take any risks: three lanes in each direction with a concrete median, and the cars and buses just roar through. There’s no light at the crosswalk, so I’m always careful to check. Better that we wait a few seconds than take any chances.
We waited for a station wagon to pass from the left and I saw a truck a good distance away on the right, but it was perfectly safe. I took her small hand in mine.
We walked quickly. Six lanes is pretty far for a three-year-old, but we’d done it plenty of times.
We should have waited at the median.
The next time I looked up, the truck was right there, maybe 100 yards away. It was old and beat up, red with white fenders. And it was roaring toward us.
I felt her fingers slip from mine. Felt her moving.
“Sherry,” I called as she skipped away. We were in the same lane as the truck, so all we had to do was get to the next lane. It wasn’t far. No more than a couple of feet.
I should have picked her up. I don’t know why I didn’t pick her up.
She turned to look at me.
I watched her pudgy white legs scamper across the pavement, her little white shoes, her little blue dress.
Her sky-blue dress.
When I turned to check, I could almost see the face of the driver in the truck. He had shifted lanes to go wide around us, weaving into the next lane, the lane in front of us, the lane that Sherry had just quickstepped into. The roar of his engine blocked out all other noise.
I reached for her, my fingers just brushing her blond hair before the truck pulled her away from me.
I could hear, over the roar of the engine, the sound of her body hitting the bumper as the truck took her beyond my reach.
I could feel the wake of the truck as it sped past me, as I threw myself toward her. Tried to reach her.
There was a squealing of tires. A scream.
And the next thing I saw was the ceiling of a hospital emergency room.
“9—1-1 Operator. How should I direct your call?”
“I just killed a little girl . . .”
“I swerved . . . I swerved around her . . .”
“Sir, where are you?”
“I’m at the Hillside Mall . . .”
“Where are you at Hillside Mall, sir?”
“I only looked away for a minute. I checked my mirror. I changed lanes. I swerved, but she . . .”
“Sir, where are you calling from?”
“I just killed a little girl . . .”
“Sir . . . Sir? Sir?”
“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