Publication: 11 January 2018 by Harvill Secker
Everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen.
But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn’t really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger.
As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go.
Alex is in a coma, in a vegetative state, living only through liquid nourishment fed through a tube and a breathing tube in his trachea. At least, he *was* in a coma, now his brain function is pretty fully restored, except that he can’t get his brain to transmit commands to any part of his body, so he is powerless to let anyone else know that he can hear, feel and understand – and sometimes even see, though shapes tend to be dim. But his sense of smell is working just fine and he is able to identify visitors to his room through the sounds they make and the way they smell.
Alex then, has locked in syndrome. Not an especially new thing for a crime book, I have read others, but I must say that this one is done very well indeed.
Everything we know, we know from Alex or from the things his visitors say to him when they come to the hospital. We are fortunate, then that Alex used to be a journalist with the Bristol Post, and even now, after 2 years in a hospital bed, he still orders his thoughts as if he were writing a story for the paper.
He was injured in a rock climbing fall, though he doesn’t really remember much at all about the accident. His mind struggles to piece together events in his life and we understand his story through his recollections of memories and from flashbacks as well as what he hears from those who visit. Sometimes the visitors are talking to him; sometimes they talk to each other, or themselves.
It’s quite a sobering thought, listening to Alex describe his care regime and the different attitudes of his doctors, caregivers and even the local cleaner, and how they treat him when they believe he has no awareness and (wrongly) believe that he can feel no pain. I thought this was an especially strong element to the book and something that could have been dull was vividly brought to life here by Emily Koch in an original and quite startling way.
The central characters in Alex’ life and his regular bedside visitors are his father, his sister Philippa, his live in partner Bea and her parents, and their friends Rosie, Tom and Eleanor.
Bea has stuck by him all this time, despite the fact that she and Alex have had ups and downs in their relationship, but Alex is aware that with no signs of improvement it will soon be time for them to seriously consider withdrawing from treating him if he gets another serious infection, and in his head he is reconciled to that fate, thinking it is only right that Bea should be allowed to live a full life.
Except that it becomes clear that not everything is as he thought it was. Perhaps his accident was no accident at all. He learns that the police are re-investigating; apparently there is ‘new information’.
At the same time Bea is feeling stressed and receiving hang up calls. Sometimes she thinks she is being followed. Alex is determined to try and break through his condition so that he can look out for Bea and piece together every scrap of information he can garner to make sense of what is going on.
There’s a striking counterpoint between what has happened to Alex and the consideration of his treatment or otherwise, and the fact that Alex’s mother died of cancer and that Alex was the one his mother trusted to make sure the family understood that she did not want to undergo further treatment. This gives more depth to the story and the characterisation and allows the reader to feel an emotional pull that is stronger than I expected.
There is a hefty tension throughout the book but alleviated by lighter moments as the plot twists and turns towards a very striking denouement.
Koch pulls the story together very well and manages to keep the reader interested and engaged right up to the end. I liked this a lot more than I thought I might, and that is because the writing really delivers on this format.
Bravo, Ms Koch, you nailed it. A stunning debut.
About Emily Koch
Emily is an author and journalist living in Bristol, UK. Her debut novel If I Die Before I Wake is published in January 2018 by Harvill Secker
Working with writer Alison Powell she is also a founding member of WriteClub – which runs regular creative writing events in Bristol.