Note: This review contains ruminations about Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Before I read a book, I tend to have an idea of what it’s about, because I like spoilers. Every so often, though, I’ll read a book “blind”. In many cases, these stories are the most satisfying, because they’re so unexpected.
Westlake Soul is one such example.
Westlake Soul has the most powerful mind on the planet. He can leave his body and let his consciousness travel across the world, understand what other people are thinking, and even communicate telepathically with animals.
You know the cliché that humans use only 10% of their brains, the tip of the iceberg? Westlake figures that somehow, he’s managed to access the other 90% – to “flip the iceberg” – and access the unconscious realms of understanding that float below the surface.
He is, essentially, a superhero.
The thing is, all superheroes have weaknesses. Westlake’s is his body. He was a surfer until two years ago when he encountered a wave too big to handle off the coast of Tofino, British Columbia, and nearly drowned. Deprived of oxygen for almost 10 minutes, the sections of his brain died off one by one. Although he was rescued, his body – and to all observers, his mind as well – lies in a vegetative state.
Superheroes also have nemeses. Westlake’s is Dr. Quietus, a grim embodiment of death that chases him throughout the ruins of his shattered mind. For two years, while his body has lain in a hospital bed, his consciousness has fought and held Dr. Quietus at bay.
However, bad things are brewing in the wider world: his family has finally reconciled itself to the fact that he may never recover. Now Westlake is in a desperate race to break beyond the confines of his body and prove to them that although he may be down, he’s not out.
Westlake Soul tackles a lot of the Big Important Questions we ask ourselves. Do souls exist? Can we truly know what is best for people trapped within their own bodies – people who may still feel pain and hunger and wonder, but who can’t move or communicate? What would life be like if we broke down the walls of rationality and “flipped” our own respective icebergs?
Most importantly, if broken, can those walls be mended?
In a weird way, this book is an amalgam of several others I’ve read and enjoyed. Westlake is a man with a beautiful soul, full of compassion and dignity, which reminds me of the main character Paama from Redemption in Indigo, one of my favourite reads from 2012.
Beyond that, some of the philosophical concepts that Westlake’s mind explores – the universal wave function, infinite universes and infinite probabilities – remind me of Neil Turok’s The Universe Within. In a sense, this book is what I was hoping The Universe Within would be more like – a book that examines the kind of cosmic internal potential we all have.
Most importantly, it reminds me of one of the best books I’ve read in the last 3 years: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. That book is too amazing and heartbreaking to talk about in this post, but by the end of it Lia Lee, the focus of that book, had also entered a persistent vegetative state.
It took me a long time to form this mental connection between both books. Out of curiosity, I Googled Lia Lee to see what had happened to her, and found that she died just four months ago.
She lay in a seizure-induced coma for 26 years. Westlake hung on for only two before his family lost hope – but Lia’s never did.
Do you think that, like Westlake, she was on the inside looking out all that time, aware of her family’s hopes and frustrations? If so, I don’t know if I would consider it a blessing or a curse.
Several books have delighted me this year with the joy of their images or the audacity of their characters. This book was the only one that made me want to cry. It’s beautiful and sad at the same time. In particular, the closing chapters where Westlake makes his one last effort to defy his fate, and the book’s deliciously ambiguous last line, are masterful. It even made me think of the final scene of Inception, where the top is left spinning. Whether Westlake’s final attempt to break his confines succeeds is left unsaid. But somehow, I’m happier not knowing.
Up next: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker