Michael Koryta's 'If She Wakes' builds a fast-paced mystery around locked-in syndrome

Published May 10, 2019

Imagine waking in a hospital bed, aware of what's going on around you but unable to move or communicate in any way. Imagine you can't even blink. Imagine you don't know how you ended up trapped inside your own head.

Terrifying, right? Now imagine that you begin to figure out what happened to you — and realize that someone is still trying to kill you.

That's the premise of Michael Koryta's intense, inventive new thriller If She Wakes. This is the 14th novel by Koryta, an alum of Eckerd College's Writers in Paradise program and former St. Petersburg resident. He's one of the few crime fiction writers who has actually worked as a private investigator, and it always gives his books a realistic texture.

In If She Wakes, Tara Beckley is a college senior in a quaint Maine town who volunteers to escort a visiting professor. That routine task turns into a nightmare when a speeding van plows into their parked car, killing the professor and throwing Tara into a nearby river.

She suffers a massive head injury that leaves her paralyzed and unresponsive. Doctors warn her family she might not recover, but her older sister, Shannon, puts her classes at Stanford's law school on hold to become her fierce advocate.

Abby Kaplan is the insurance investigator working for Tara's college. She left behind a career as a stunt driver in Hollywood and came home to Maine after an accident led to the death of her movie-star boyfriend. Abby was at the wheel, and seeing Tara lying unresponsive in a hospital bed evokes almost unbearable memories.

Abby is dealing with her guilt in part by drinking, and her job helps her disguise it. She has learned to pay cash at the bar and discard her receipts: "You stopped by the body shop to take pictures of a cracked up car and found damning evidence just sitting there in the cup holder, a tiny slip of paper with a time-and-date stamp that blew up any possible defense."

That eye for detail serves her well on the job. When the van's driver is found dead, the accident looks less like an accident. When Abby investigates the accident scene, her experience as a professional driver reveals clues that make that even clearer. But why anyone would want to harm the professor, or Tara, remains a mystery.

When Tara gets a visitor at the hospital, an ingratiating young man who introduces himself to her family as a friend, they're pleased. But Tara is frightened — and can't tell them. He's not the friend whose name he used; he's no one she has seen before: "Average height and build, but he seems carved out of something very hard, not earned muscle so much as a natural quality; his angular face is all rigid edges and crisp lines."

His real name is (probably) Dax Blackwell. Readers of Koryta's 2016 novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead, might recognize Dax's surname. His father, Jack Blackwell, and uncle, Patrick Blackwell, were the bone-chilling hired killers in that book.

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Those Who Wish Me Dead is going into production this month as a theatrical movie, directed by Taylor Sheridan (Wind River) and starring Angelina Jolie, with Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) as the Blackwell brothers.

In If She Wakes, Dax seems to be continuing the family business. And he's not the only killer prowling around. As Abby delves deeper into the case, danger follows her, and her work becomes personal.

Tara, meanwhile, continues to suffer what's known as locked-in syndrome. She struggles desperately to find a way to communicate, not just to warn her family about Blackwell but to prevent them from deciding to pull the plug on her if she continues to seem unresponsive. Her bond with Shannon sometimes seems like her only lifeline.

Koryta makes clever use of technology in If She Wakes, with a cellphone's facial recognition a key to why Tara and the professor were attacked, and to keeping Tara alive. He structures a plot that accelerates like one of Abby's beloved race cars.

But it's the human element, the stories of two young women trying to reclaim their lives, that makes If She Wakes so compelling.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

If She Wakes

By Michael Koryta

Little, Brown, 393 pages, $28

Meet the author

Michael Koryta will discuss and sign his new novel at 2 p.m. May 18 at Barnes & Noble Tampa, 213 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa.