Before I Wake by Robert J Wiersema

Recently, I was asked to participate in the Toronto Library’s 2011 Keep Toronto Reading Campaign. This year’s theme is “books that transform us.” My job was simply to make a two-minute video pitch recommending a book that has transformed me.

Is “transformation” too hefty of a claim for books? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that when I’m being a good reader, all books transform me. If I’m truly open to an author’s imaginative world and ideas, I will by the book’s end be in some way (however subtly) changed. If I fully engage with the author’s vision, something about the way I look at (and understand) the world will be altered, perhaps permanently.

I’m not always a good reader, though. Sometimes I’m too busy or distracted or stressed to give a book the attention it requires. Sometimes I’m preoccupied and I come to a book with my own baggage; I then end up judging it based on what I want it to be rather than attempting to understand it for what it is. Sometimes, I simply meet a book at the wrong time. But if I read a book – any book – with true care and openness, that reading experience can indeed be transformative.

The book to transform me most recently, and the one I recommended for Keep Toronto Reading 2011 is Robert J. Wiersema’s Before I Wake. The reason this recommendation surprised me is that I resisted reading this book for four years. It’s a book that generated a significant buzz at its 2006 release: it was A Globe and Mail best book and a national best-seller. Many readers whom I trust told me: “You have to read Before I Wake.” “You’ll devour it in one sitting.” “It’s un-put-down-able.” “It destroyed me, and I loved it.”

Why did I resist Before I Wake then? Because all I knew about it was this: it’s about a three-year-old girl who gets hit by a car and spends the rest of the book in a coma.

No, thank you. Absolutely not.

As a mom, I spend a very high portion of my time trying not to imagine such things happening. I certainly (certainly!) was not going to spend any time with a book that went to the trouble of portraying my worst fears in vivid, concrete details.

Never.

However, eventually the praise for the book outweighed my fears of the book, and I decided to give Before I Wake a try. It definitely lived-up-to (even exceeded) its reputation– I truly couldn’t put it down. I read it on runways after every other passenger had disembarked the plane. I read it in bed long after my eyes wanted to be sleeping. I read it in parking lots when I should’ve been inside racing to my next meeting. As a plot-driven novel with a lot of suspense, Before I Wake is a real page-turner, an absolutely gripping read start to finish.

Of course, I discovered fairly early on in my (open and careful) reading of Before I Wake that it’s not at all about a little girl getting hit by a car. That is what happens, but it’s not what the book is about. That’s part of being a good reader – going beyond mere plot to the real heart of a book. Despite this book’s dark opening (the actual car accident), Before I Wake is, at its heart, a tremendously optimistic book.

I won’t give too much away, but a series of miracles start to happen around the comatose girl. Straddling the divide between literary novel and genre fiction, Before I Wake is a wildly supernatural ride. There are ghosts. There are manifestations of pure Evil. There are equally plausible manifestations of pure Good. Characters – including the girl’s parents –are forced to learn how to cope with the miraculous in a way that is neither exploitive nor fearful.

And herein lays my transformation – pure Good? Miracles? In serious fiction?

Really?

Before I Wake made me realized how cynical I’ve become. I’ve grown to think that serious fiction must be depressing. It must portray a world ultimately devoid of meaning. It must reject the possibility of absolutes such as Good and Evil. Before I Wake opened my mind to a whole new kind of writing (and a whole new way of thinking about the contemporary world). In Before I Wake, Wiersema has created a remarkably readable novel that is complex and intelligent, but also manages to do something that serious fiction rarely (if ever) does: it presents a world in which miracles and pure good are not only a possibility but a real tangible presence. How very original, how very full of possibilities, how very… transformative.