By Daniel Coyle
Perhaps the worst nightmare for any parent is the death of a child. Sara Black, the protagonist of "Waking Samuel," lost her only child and focus of her life, 4-year-old Luke.
That premise sets in motion the plot of this engrossing novel. From the opening scene, in which an insomniac Sara reviews her situation, Daniel Coyle snares the reader with his insight, compelling characters and taut dialog.
It is nearly two years since the auto accident that killed Luke and maimed Sara. But although she has gone back to her job as a nurse, she has not healed psychologically. People, even the casual acquaintances in her subdivision, sense her distress and anger:
"Concern, that was the magical word, the one they liked to use. They were concerned about Sara, concerned at the way she was handling this. Concerned, they whispered, because Sara hadn't 'come to grips with things,' because she had 'closed herself off,'" Coyle writes.
Sara cannot bear to let go of her grieving and guilt. Her son's ghost haunts her, and she seeks to atone somehow for his death. Her toxic grief poisons her marriage and her career.
But this is more than a psychological drama about a woman's angst.
Through her hospital job, Sara meets "the tall man," a mysterious patient in the traumatic brain injury ward. Found in a beached boat with a bullet in his brain from what appears to be a botched suicide attempt, he has never been identified. Under Sara's care, he begins emerging from his coma.
The distraught, disjointed tale he tells fascinates both Sara and the reader.
Identifying himself as Samuel, the patient speaks of being marooned upon an isolated Alaska island near Sitka. The only inhabitants were the Spero family: an eccentric biologist and his two feral children. The son, the charismatic and crazed Kjell, adopted Samuel, alternately training and bullying him. The daughter, the innocent beauty Oceana, was the center around which the males all warily orbited.
Sara becomes obsessed with Samuel, seeing him as a trapped victim she can, perhaps, rescue. But as she tries to fit him into her nightmare, she finds herself, instead, mired in his own tragedy.
The patient's mystery elevates the book's suspense and action, complementing the rich depiction of the characters' innermost thoughts. Coyle excels at drawing their personalities. They stand out as unique but normal, unusual but believable, flawed but sympathetic.
He reveals the roots of Sara's despair, including her dislike of suburban culture and her childhood longing for her glamorous, distant mother. The secondary characters are equally strong. There is Josephine, the massive Slavic nurse who gives Sara rare consolation with her crude wisdom. And there is Tom, the self-made man, "garage superhero" and Sara's put-upon husband:
"Even in feigned sleep, Tom was good at emanating the sense that no matter what happens, everything will be okay," Coyle writes. "This bedrock certainty the precise quality she'd fallen in love with now made him seem as remote as the moon."
Although much of the subject matter in "Waking Samuel" is dark, these characters all are decent people at their cores. Ultimately, their good intentions redeem them.
Even Sara, at her most bleak, can honestly say, "'This is about helping someone. I'm a nurse, it's what I do.'"
Although this is Coyle's first novel, he is an accomplished writer and it shows. His resume includes a senior editorship at "Outside" magazine and the award-winning nonfiction book "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," which was made into a movie. In the 1990s he moved his family to Homer.
He adroitly navigates the inner landscape of complex people in complex situations, his prose seamlessly ranging from blunt conversations to lyrical descriptions of the wild seacoast.
For all the skill that went into it, the book has a minor, odd flaw. At the beginning of the book, the text makes it clear that Luke was 3 at the time of his death, yet elsewhere he is called 4. Moreover, some conversations he has with his mother stretch the abilities of even a precocious preschooler. It is unclear if this, and a few other inconsistencies of the narrative, are glitches or if the author meant them as subtle clues to the characters' distorted perceptions.
Another quibble is with the jacket blurb. It gives away a bit too much of the plot. Moreover, the basic description of the book as being about a troubled nurse meeting a mysterious, amnesiac patient and drawing out his past makes it sound like a remake of "The English Patient." It's not.
Instead, "Waking Samuel" is a beautifully crafted story about parenting, identity, guilt and redemption.
Coyle has the right stuff for the write stuff, and we Alaskans are privileged that an author of his caliber has chosen to live among us.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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