Before I Go To Sleep (2011): S.J. Watson


Further thanks to everyone for your support and messages over the last few days. Give yourselves a pat on the back for being wonderful human beings. For my part, I’ve decided that life is far too rich and busy to sit around feeling sorry for myself, so let’s forge onward and get back to thinking about good books and gorgeous art and crazy operas and all sorts of other lovely things. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to focus on my blog but, you know what? I’ve realised that writing The Idle Woman is one of the great joys in my life and the best possible tonic for my spirits. So you can all imagine me right now, curling up contentedly with a cup of tea after a busy day, in order to thrash out my thoughts on my most recent read. And this one requires a bit of thrashing.

Christine wakes to find herself in bed with a strange man. This isn’t unusual, but she’s disappointed in herself when she realises that he’s middle-aged and wearing a wedding ring. Yet there’s worse to come. When she goes to the bathroom, she realises to her horror that her body feels unfamiliar, and the face in the mirror isn’t her own. Or is it? As Christine focuses, she realises that the middle-aged woman in the mirror is her. But how? She should be in her early twenties, with her whole life ahead of her. Context is given by the gentle, patient man in bed, who introduces himself as Ben, her husband. They have been married for over twenty years. While still a young woman, Christine suffered a traumatic traffic accident which has left her plagued with amnesia. Every morning she wakes up believing herself to be a child or young woman, having forgotten everything that’s happened since. Every day Ben has to explain who she is, where she is, and what has happened. Her lifespan has been reduced to twenty-four hours.

When Ben leaves for work, Christine receives a phone call from another stranger, who introduces himself as Dr Nash. He tells her he’s her doctor and that they’ve been working together, without Ben’s knowledge, to see if they can tackle her memory loss. He wants to meet her and return something. This turns out to be her journal, in which Christine has been recording her life every day for several weeks. Each morning, Dr Nash calls to tell her where to find it. Every day, she reads over her previous entries and pieces together fragments of her past. Every day, she can start from a position of greater knowledge.

But, every day, Christine also gets a stronger feeling that something isn’t quite right. There are strange gaps: omissions and errors in what Ben tells her. She knows he’s only trying to protect her, but what is there in her past that needs to be concealed? As Dr Nash takes her to old familiar places in the hope of stimulating buried memories, Christine has to face up to some daunting and alarming questions. Did she really lose her memories in a traffic accident? What has happened to the friends and family she remembers? How can she recover her life? And who can she believe? Most terrifying of all, why is her journal prefaced by three words writ large in her own handwriting: ‘Don’t trust Ben‘?

This is a very good psychological thriller: the kind of gripping read you need for a long journey or, as I’ve discovered, at a time when you aren’t able to focus on anything too deep. I believe it was Watson’s debut, which emphasises his skill at introducing the insidious growth of unsettling doubts, not to mention his ability to create a thoroughly convincing first-person female narrator. Yes, to some extent it does feel like Memento, with Christine’s journal taking the place of tattoos; but it’s a strong enough concept to transcend that comparison. It’s also set in North London – always a pleasure to find a homegrown thriller – and for much of the book it has a typically British understatement, spoiled only by the rather melodramatic ending, which for me didn’t fit all that well with the spirit of the rest of the novel. But it definitely commands attention. Of course, it’s been made into a film – happily, one that’s still set in London, I think (I haven’t seen it) – so I’d be interested to hear from those who’ve experienced both book and film, to see how you feel it translates between media.

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8 thoughts on “Before I Go To Sleep (2011): S.J. Watson

  1. RT says:

    Have not read the book (though am certainly intrigued now) or seen the film so can’t add anything useful, but I just wanted to say how glad I am to see you are blogging again… x

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