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November 25, 2010

Bedtime Story by Robert J. Wiersema

I was afraid to read Robert J. Wiersema’s new novel Bedtime Story because it contains a book within the book, which fascinates me in theory but usually frustrates me when it comes down to actually reading the book(s). Also because the book within that book is a fantasy quest narrative, which is usually a very good sign of a book that’s not for me.

I decided to read the book, however, in spite of my fears, because I have never quite forgotten how much I enjoyed Wiersema’s first novel Before I Wake. Also because it’s a story about a parent/child connection through reading, about the power of literature in childhood, and because Wiersema’s interviews at Kate’s blog and at Steven’s made it seem so interesting.

Christopher Knox is at an impasse– his marriage beyond repair, his eleven year old son at a distance, and he’s been struggling to write his second novel for so long that most people have forgotten he’d ever written a first. When he gives his son a  book for his birthday, a used book, and not even Lord of the Rings which the boy had asked him for, it seems a typical misstep– the boy is disappointed, his wife once again has opportunity to reflect that Chris only ever thinks about himself.  The book, however, proves surprising, transporting Chris’s son David into its fictional world, which is remarkable for a boy who’s always struggled with reading before.

The problem, of course, comes about when David is literally transported into the fictional realm, leaving his parents and medical experts bewildered by his unresponsiveness. Chris, however, is well-read enough to know that strange things can happen, and suspects that his son’s book is at the the root of what has happened, and so embarks upon a quest to discover the magic spell behind the text that has taken his son, to keep the book from enemy hands (including unscrupulous publishing types), and to find the key to the spell so he can reverse it somehow and return his boy to their metafictional reality.

At the same time, David is undergoing an analogous quest, crossing canyons and mountain ranges in search of the elusive “sunstone”. These passages were short enough that my interest rarely lagged, and made interesting by David’s awareness of his place in the fiction, and how he has to keep others from realizing that he is an imposter. Even more interesting, he is accompanied on his journey by the spirit of a boy who’d read the book before him and similarly fallen under its spell. Unlike the other boy, however, David’s journey continues because all the while his body sits empty at home, his father keeps reading the book, convinced (correctly) that continuing the story is essential to David’s survival.

Lots of interesting things are going on in the text. We are treated to no physical description of Christopher Knox, and his narration is first person while the others characters’ are third, the effect of all this being space for the reader to be enveloped by the story, similar to how David becomes the fictional Daffyd. The novel is also a bit too long, a twist too far, but is conscious of this– in the fictional realm, David remarks upon his fear that the story will keep going forever, questing for the sake of quest, and we can certainly empathize. Wiersema also takes advantage of fiction to make alternative realities possible– Chris’s wife’s Jacqui’s refusal to believe her husband’s theory of what has happened to their son begins to seem preposterous. The book’s magic is so solidly rooted in physical reality that all lines between realism and fantasy are blurred, and genre becomes any extraneous idea.

Bedtime Story is a novel to be enjoyed on multiple levels– a fast-paced thriller, ode to childhood reading, a testament to the power of literature and written word (which is always a kind of magic spell, however benign), a magical escape narrative, a heartening story of father/son relations, and there is murder, mafioso, and a mysterious library as well. It was truly a pleasure to get lost in this one for a while.

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