Oprah Will Love It
- Robert J. Wiersema (Author)
Before I Wake. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Barbara Pell
I expect there will be a big audience for this novel, but doubt that it will include anyone who takes Canadian literary fiction seriously. The advertising copy identifies it as “part domestic novel, part [supernatural] thriller,” compares it to The Lovely Bones, and alludes to a “larger battle” that “has been raging for close to two thousand years.” With echoes of popular apocalyptic Christian literature, The Da Vinci Code, and Touched by an Angel, this book has the ingredients of a blockbuster page-turner and melodramatic romance.
An elaborate, unbelievable plot drives the novel and peoples it with stereotypical, unbelievable characters. In April, 1996, three-year-old Sherry Barrett is left comatose after being hit by a truck. In this tragedy, Sherry’s saintly mother, Karen, is abandoned by her selfish lawyer husband, Simon, for his lover and junior lawyer, Mary. However, miraculously, when taken off life support, Sherry does not die or atrophy, but just sleeps in the family living room for months. During that time, she becomes a source of miraculous healing to hundreds of people who visit her or send her letters. Karen and Simon, faced with the dilemma of Sherry’s healing powers (and without any spiritual beliefs themselves), generously open their home to all pilgrims. By Christmas time, Simon has repented his adultery (and recovered his lost idealism by singing folksongs again), Karen has forgiven him (and recovered her lost potential by writing children’s stories again), and Mary has repudiated Simon, befriended Karen, and renounced corporate law for Legal Aid. At the end of the novel, Sherry cures her parents of their bitternesses (and their conception problems), and her ghost happily watches them as, pregnant with her new sister, they visit her grave.
Meanwhile, the truck driver, Henry Denton, has thrown himself off a cliff. But his ghost is trapped in limbo, haunting the Public Library with others who cannot fully die until they atone for their sins. He is mentored by Tim (whose name is a Monty Python joke), really Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, locked in an ages-long apocalyptic battle with the Stranger, really Judas Iscariot. The Stranger, masquerading as a Catholic priest sent to assess Sherry’s miracles, mobilises a group of fundamentalist fanatics to protest the falsity of her miracles and the corruption of her parents. He also, in a vague allusion to his knowledge of everyone’s sin, blackmails a host of powerful people into firing Simon from his law firm, Sherry’s doctor from his hospital, and Karen’s best friend from her newspaper; he also corrupts the entire police force of Victoria into refusing to protect the Barretts. Finally, the Stranger tricks a young retarded man, Leo, into trying to burn down Sherry’s house. In Henry’s brutal confrontation with Leo on Christmas night, he saves the home and defeats the Stranger’s evil, but is badly burned (are ghosts flammable?). At the end, Henry approaches Sherry, who wakes from her comma to forgive him (his body then disappears, presumably to heaven), and immediately dies in the arms of her parents.
Wiersema attempts to normalize his spiritual fantasy with ordinary domestic details about shopping, cooking, and dish-washing. His style is clean and functional; the constantly shifting multiple narrative voices are announced with the characters’ names before their sections. It is impossible not to feel compassion for a mother who climbs into bed with a three-year-old whose life-support has just been turned off: “And if I die before I wake . . . I tightened my arms around her, pulling her to me, trying to pull her back inside me, where I could protect her, where I could keep her warm and safe.” However, the strings that tug the heart are too obvious. This novel supposedly “reveals the power of forgiveness, and the true nature, and cost, of miracles.” But Karen’s forgiveness is cheap, and Sherry’s miracles are simply asserted. Some attempts to introduce profound questions about faith and morality into this romantic soap opera are present, but the theologically skeptical parents remain skeptical throughout and live happily ever after. Although they clearly believe in Sherry’s miracles, they do not interrogate any intellectual or spiritual depths. Their moral dilemma concerning whether or not to turn away the pilgrims is introduced (“What are we going to do?”) and quickly resolved (“Do you want to be the one who has terminally ill kids dragged off by the police?”). This is good popular fiction, but literary popcorn.
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MLA: Pell, Barbara. Oprah Will Love It. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 153 - 154)
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