While I Was Sleeping | Dani Atkins


While I Was Sleeping cover

REVIEWED BY SARAH PROCTOR

Wow. Relationships in fiction surely don’t come any less black and white than this…

Maddie is a vibrant young bride-to-be, full of life, addicted to social media – and fourteen weeks pregnant. So when she is hit by a truck running across a road, there are a great many people praying for her recovery. In due course she wakes from her coma, only to find everyone behaving rather oddly. But if it’s August, she has only been unconscious for seven weeks – hasn’t she? But one thing is for sure, she is no longer pregnant…

So begins one of the most absorbing, emotional and complex novels I’ve read in a good while. Fragments of reality are reluctantly contributed by Maddie’s fiancé Ryan, her nurse, Ellen, and her father – though strangely her mother is “not well enough” to visit. One shock follows another as Maddie struggles bravely to adjust to a world that is disconcertingly different to the one she remembers.

Through the eyes of Chloe…

Yet she is not the only one having to readjust. After many chapters from Maddie’s point of view we suddenly pivot a hundred and eighty degrees to see her through the eyes of Chloe, the new woman in Ryan’s heart – whom initially Maddie feels has stolen the life she was meant to have. But the reader’s loyalties quickly begin to divide, as Chloe emerges as a less glamorous, more self-deprecating and endearingly open-hearted character. She is even a former librarian – an out-and-out literary cliché, forgivable in this instance because of its plot relevance and because it suits her character so well.

Thankfully, unguarded comments aside, these three protagonists are not intentionally cruel to each other – their circumstances are plenty cruel enough, as Ryan’s memories and protective instincts resurface, making both women wonder where his loyalties will eventually settle. And then of course, there is his daughter, the intelligent, adorable Hope, the image of her mother…

So Maddie recovers enough to leave hospital, and she, Ryan, Chloe and Hope become a complicated yet overwhelmingly positive part of each others’ lives. You would think, given the circumstances, that none of them would be so foolhardy as to ignore and dismiss ominous health symptoms… but then again, maybe it’s because they all feel they have seen enough of hospitals to last a lifetime?

Cruel luck again?

Alas, cruel circumstances bring the wheel around again – with a very different dynamic, and love and humour lightening the grim inevitability. Or is it inevitable? By this stage you simply can’t be sure.

The third cliché in this far from predictable roller-coaster of a novel is the nail-bitingly, heart-breakingly ambiguous penultimate chapter – but by this stage you are so invested in all the characters that there is no lesser agony, whatever the outcome. Except perhaps for Ryan. Yet even then it’s not over…

The book’s dedication reads, “For Bev, whose story inspired this book and whose courage inspires everyone who meets her.” Well, Bev, you have clearly been through the mill – and I humbly wish you well, along with all those in similar situations, their loved ones and the wonderful staff of the overburdened yet miracle-performing NHS.

This is a book to make you gasp, sob, laugh, flinch, totally believe in its characters and above all, appreciate life and the power of generosity of spirit. As I said – wow.

While I Was Sleeping by Dani Atkins is published by Simon & Schuster in paperback, RRP £7.99

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Sarah Proctor

I've worked on a variety of regional newspapers and national magazines. My Weekly is a fantastic, warm-hearted brand with an amazing, talented team. I'm a sub-editor and particularly love working on fiction and the advice pages - I feel I should know all the secrets of eternal life, health and happiness by now, but hey, we all need that weekly reminder!