by Robert J. Wiersema
Random House Canada, 2010
496 pp. $32.95
Through the eyes of Chris Knox and his son, Wiersema weaves blurry lines between fiction, real life, and fantasy in Bedtime Story, a book of many layers. All at once, it’s a domestic drama, a book-within-a-book, and an adventure fantasy. The novel is as much about fathers, sons, marriage, and family as it is about the greasy ills of the publishing industry and the many ways a book can change your life.
“While I was reading, I ceased to be little Christopher Knox—I became someone else entirely. That’s what books should do for us,” Chris writes of his childhood love of books in his book column for the Vancouver Sun. “I still recall how it felt to read those novels, the impact they had on my life, on my heart.” As a boy, Chris avidly read fantasy novels by Lazarus Took, a joy he hoped to pass on to David, his only child. David dyslexia makes reading difficult, so Chris reads aloud to him as a daily bedtime routine.
On David’s 11th birthday, Chris gives his son a vintage copy of To the Four Directions, a rare Took novel. Unbeknownst to both father and son, the spellbinding book is not just addictive, but ridden with spells that trap the souls of its young readers. David, hooked on a book for the first time, suffers a severe and inexplicable seizure as he reaches a turning point in the plot.
The seizure renders David unable to speak and barely able to move without assistance, but in a world far away from the hospital and his parents, he’s the protagonist in To the Four Directions. There, David, known as Dafyd in the book, is chosen by the queen to embark on a quest to find a healing rock that will save the ailing king.
Back in Victoria, Chris and his wife Jacqui’s already shaky marriage continues to tear at the seams as the two struggle to make sense of their son’s sudden catatonia. Chris notices that David’s condition briefly improves as he reads him chapters from To the Four Directions. He begins to develop a suspicion that David’s condition is related to the book.
Chris’ seemingly harebrained theories draw disdain from Jacqui and expanding lies to her from Chris as he secretly embarks on a mission to unlock the book’s spell and, by extension, save David. His journey takes him across the country to New York and finally to Portland, Oregon, where he meets the woman who claims to be the novelist’s granddaughter. But all is not as it seems.
The book’s fantastical premise may initially turn off some readers who would otherwise enjoy Wiersema’s expansive, melancholy style. But unlike other works of young-adult fantasy, Wiersema’s emotional intelligence, obvious love of writing, and heart imbue Bedtime Story with much wider appeal. The story of Chris and Jacqui unfolds between chapters of To the Four Directions, and the effect is a touching exploration of the magic of writing, the transformative potential of books, and the sometimes-ugly ambition of writers.
Wiersema is aware of the comparisons readers—and critics—would be compelled to draw between To the Four Directions and the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings. “Castle intrigue? A quest?” he writes. “Sure, it was hoary old material, but he had me hooked again, just like he had when I was a kid.”
The book’s celebration of the power of writing also reveals reading and writing’s nasty, escapist qualities. “I have to live in the real world,” Jacqui tells Chris during an argument. “Someone has to be here, taking care of our son, while you go off on these tangents. Someone has to be here, Chris. And whether you’re in New York or upstairs, you’re just not.”
Bedtime Story’s textured, always human saga makes for a highly enjoyable read, even for self-proclaimed non-fans of fantasy books. The novel achieves the ambitions of its author protagonist—and the author himself—in spades: the rich, exhilarating story is swift, satisfying, and almost impossible to put down.
Jackie Wong is a freelance writer in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in OpenFile Vancouver, This Magazine, The Georgia Straight, BCBusiness, WE, and others.
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