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Robert Wiersema (Duane Prentice)
Robert Wiersema (Duane Prentice)

Children's fiction: Review

The boy inside the book Add to ...

The time we spend with a book of fiction is almost certainly transformative, though in ways that are often too subtle to notice. Did we take on a slight Yorkshire accent during our month with Nicholas Nickleby? Would we really have binged at the mall that day, minus that subtle push from the Shopaholic book?

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Stories can seep across the blood-brain barrier and trap us within them; the very best won't let us out. Your stay inside Bedtime Story will be pretty swift - it's just a fun read - but there's no denying the wonderfully childlike promise of its premise: A boy is sucked into the action of a novel, and his father must work like hell to free him.

David is a fairly typical 11-year-old. He loves baseball and video games, owns a hamster, is mildly dyslexic and has a problem with bullies. His aversion to reading definitely troubles his father, Chris, himself a grievously blocked writer. So when David becomes enthralled with an old fantasy novel his father once cherished, Chris preens.

For a few days, that is. David's new-found bibliophilia is cruelly cut short by a seizure that leaves him mobile but empty, speechless and apparently thoughtless. Doctors haven't a clue. Surrounded by the science-minded (his quasi-estranged wife is a nurse), only literary Chris realizes the truth of what has happened. It's a poetic meditation on the question sparked by some forms of actual brain injury - namely, where has the victim gone? Wiersema's acclaimed 2006 debut, Before I Wake, featured a toddler left comatose after a hit-and-run accident. Here, the accident is clearly less realistic, but the effect just as saddening.

After David's seizure, the narrative cleaves neatly in two. One story is David's kiddie quest-epic, which sees him (in ways that are variously Tolkienish, Lewis-y or Pullmanesque) trying to find a sacred stone so he can be freed from what, to most of the adult world, looks like permanent brain damage. Truth be told, it's a quest you've been on before, if you're older than 11. Yes, spidery hands do emerge from the wall and try to strangle him. Yes, he must dive into a spontaneous fire to obtain treasure. Yes, there is a giant bear, and bad guys with arrows, and a King, and a Queen, and a wise old wizard. No, Shrek does not show up.

The other tale belongs solidly to Chris, and it's infinitely better, if you're an adult. Serpentine and clever in structure, it is also rich in weird, surprising characters - cookie-baking Wiccans, British Satanists, an ambitious but galumphing New York book editor and the mysterious granddaughter of the offending book's author.

Chris's journey is infinitely more original than David's, but that's not lost on Wiersema. First, he acknowledges that the work of his fictional fantasy author ("Lazarus Took") isn't necessarily top-tier; he's described in an encyclopedia entry as "a purveyor of clichéd, derivative, post-Second World War British fantasy." Second, its tricks are only shopworn if you've spent too much time in the shop; we have no trouble at all believing that young David would fall dangerously in love with the story in which he unwillingly stars.

Nor do we doubt the most enchanting aspect of this book-within-a-book, which is that David grows up while imprisoned there. Can a boy grow up within a video game, a TV show or a social networking website? Hardly, but one can certainly argue that books - with their hypnotic, consuming power - go a longer way toward getting the job done: They transform. You will be reminded, while reading Bedtime Story, of all the studies showing that boys read fiction far less than they used to. Then you will worry about what that might mean.

Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto journalist and critic who fears being trapped inside her old calculus textbook.

 

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