Harvill Secker | 2018 (ebook: 4 January; Hb: 11 January) | 312p | Review copy | Buy the book
Alex has had a terrible climbing accident. He now lies in a coma and he isn’t expect ever to wake up. But, as the visitors come and go, sometimes holding his hand, touching his face and talking to him, and as the nurses and doctors come in to examine him or turn him over, none of them realise that Alex is aware of every word and every touch. But he can’t communicate. He can’t even move a finger or an eyelid. All he can do is listen and sometimes that means he hears the worst of things. Especially when his girlfriend Bea visits and cries that she may be ready to move on with her life, with somebody new.
But Alex can also hear other things. He can hear that Bea is afraid, that she thinks she is being watched. He also learns that the police are looking into his accident all these months on. Could there be a connection? Could Bea be in danger? But what on earth can he do about it when all he can do is lie on his hospital bed. Nobody could be more vulnerable than Alex is right now. And he’s aware that he might not have much time. His father and sister have the power to have his lifecare turned off any moment they choose.
If I Die Before I Wake adds another twist to the psychological thriller. Everything is presented through the limited senses of Alex. We barely leave his hospital room except for brief flashbacks to memories from his past. And we don’t even see everything that happens in his hospital room. Alex dips in and out of consciousness, his vision is impaired and almost non-existent. He must rely on his other senses as well as his sensitivity to the moods and fears and hopes of his girlfriend, his father and sister, and his closest friends. He must use his instincts and knowledge of their characters to try and work out what is going on. This is also a mental exercise for Alex – to keep his brain working while the rest of him fails.
This premise means an intriguing mystery and we are no more aware of the clues than Alex is. There is also an element of the unreliable narrator about Alex. We don’t know if we can trust him. We barely know him. And, as he moves in out out of wakefulness, we are only too aware that we’re not seeing the full picture. This does add menace and tension to the novel but it also means action is something that can only be imagined rather than carried out. There were times when this slowed the pace down too much for me but the main issue of it was the frustration – we share Alex’s frustration.
I found it refreshing to have a male main character rather than another female victim. This does add an interesting edge as Alex spends time examining his relationships with his father, sister and girlfriend. Arguably, the sections in which Alex looks back on his relationship with his sister are the strongest of the novel and have a resonance beyond the shock felt by any twists in the tale. The novel is written beautifully, with some clever little touches as Alex lies still and hears conversation to the left and then to the right of his bed.
If I Die Before I Wake is a novel with a great deal of emotion and intensity. It is built upon a tragic state of affairs but there are still touches of humour, glimmers of hope, largely due to Alex who has retained his personality despite his terrible situation. The mystery didn’t entirely catch my imagination but this is a novel about what Alex can do to stay alive, how he can keep sane, and Emily Koch’s treatment of that is the novel’s highlight for me. And it is done very well indeed.