IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE
by EMILY KOCH
Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up and as far as the medical team looking after him can ascertain, there is no sign of brain activity, meaning that his family are under pressure to consider withdrawing his life support.
But Alex can hear them. He can hear his family debating about what to do and he can hear them talking about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on. He can also hear police, snippets of conversations and further clues that suggest the accident that put him in a coma, wasn't really an accident. In fact, it seems that whoever did this to Alex is still out there and that Alex is not the only person in danger.
If I Die Before I Wake is the story of Alex, lying trapped inside his body on a hospital bed, desperately trying to pull all the clues together so that he can solve the mystery surrounding his accident before his family decide to let him go.
This is a brave and ambitious idea for a book which takes an emotive storyline and a protagonist who is in a challenging position - not only because of their physical situation but also because they cannot speak, see or move. All the narrative has to come from Alex's internal thoughts and the snippets of conversation he overhears. But Koch has managed to deal with all these challenges, creating a main character who grabs the reader's empathy and she sustains our interest in his plight throughout the whole novel.
Because of Alex's position, there is plenty of room to reveal Alex's backstory, let him reflect on his relationships within his family and with Bea, and also consider the clues which are gradually revealing themselves about his accident. Because we are in Alex's head so much, this is an interesting read; although there are twists and the pages are full of tension, at the same time this novel has an atmosphere of contemplation. There are some clever parallels drawn between Alex's situation and his mother's illness and this added layer offers more depth to the story and characterisation. What also makes this narrative unique is that everything is from Alex's point of view and all we learn about the characters comes from him and hearing them talk. We know nothing of their looks, gestures and any physical interaction that a writer would normally rely on to develop tension. It also essentially all takes place within the confines of a hospital room.
This story is about solving a crime but there are many more themes explored within it. Obviously there is the question about patients in a coma and it is fascinating reading about Alex trying to move his body, think dynamically and somehow make the scans show that he is able to hear and there is brain activity. This side of the novel, and the constant pain, aching and loss of consciousness Alex suffers, is very well captured by Koch and Alex's situation feels convincing. I did find it quite difficult to read at times but I also appreciate that some of this is necessary to capture Alex's frustration or prepare us for what might happen next, but it is hard to read about someone unable to communicate with their loved ones or make anyone realise he is aware of their voices, touch and smells. However, this is also credit to the author as I was obviously fully absorbed in narrative and the plight of the protagonist.
Although this kind of story has been done a few times, it's very difficult to pull off effectively and I think with the additional ticking clock as Alex's family prepare to switch off his life support creates an original layer of suspense, pace, tension and drama. The novel has plenty of refection and quite a substantial sub plot about his sister and his mother, but there is a change in pace as the threat that someone is out to hurt Alex increases towards the end of the novel.
It's a challenging novel to read but would make a great Book Group novel and will interest people looking for a different take on a psychological thriller.
If I Die Before I Wake is published by Random House Vintage on January 11th 2018.