Before I Go to Sleep

Perhaps the best way to recommend Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson, is to mention that I read it in three days, and that, given the chance, I would have finished it even sooner than that. I found it thrilling from the moment I first started reading, and my mind would wander to it whenever I had to step away. This is not to say that the book, in the end, was perfect, or that it was one of the greatest books I have ever read, but it was a fantastic debut that I would recommend to many different types of people. Gripping, thought-provoking, and well-executed, Before I Go to Sleep is the kind of book that almost insists on being compulsively read. You will abandon basic duties, prior engagements, and probably personal hygiene, in your quest to finish it. And then, of course, you will recommend it to everyone you know—no matter how tenuous the relationship—in the hopes of having someone with whom to discuss it.

The story belongs to Christine Lucas, the amnesiac first-person narrator who wakes each day not knowing how she spent the last one. In fact, she cannot remember how she spent the last twenty years or so—sometimes much more. A terrible accident left her unable to form new memories, or even to recall some old ones, and thus she cannot remember anything that has happened to her since she was in her twenties. She wakes up each morning not recognizing the man she is sleeping next to, and she must be told that he is her husband of more than two decades. When she looks in the mirror, she is shocked by the middle-aged woman staring back at her. Half her life has been lost to her, even though she has lived it.

On the day that we readers meet Christine, which is just one in a disconnected series of days, one that cannot be placed in any context, she has, for the umpteenth time, learned of her accident, her memory problems, and the life she leads with her husband, Ben. When he leaves for the day to go to work, she tries to occupy herself, performing simple chores around the house and wondering if this is what she does every day. Her routine is broken, however, when she receives a phone call; the man on the other line is not Ben. The stranger introduces himself as Dr. Nash, a neuropsychologist who has been working with Christine for the last few weeks, helping her to recover her memory. They have an appointment that day, one that Ben knows nothing about.

Christine agrees to meet with Dr. Nash. He explains her unusual condition to her: it allows her to retain new memories, but only until she goes to sleep for the night. Each morning, it is as if her memory has been reset. Curiously, there is no medical explanation for how or why her memory works this way. Dr. Nash tells Christine that one solution he has suggested is for her to keep a diary of her daily activities, which she has done for the past few weeks. Each day she would reread or skim through the previous entries in order to recover some sense of continuity. A few days ago, she left this diary with Dr. Nash, and he has been waiting to return it.

When Christine gets home, she opens the journal to the first page. As expected, there is her name, Christine Lucas, written in black ink across the center of the page. Added below it, however, in all capital letters is something shocking. A message: DON’T TRUST BEN. What caused Christine to write this? And how long has the message been there? Is she in danger…and how much times does she have to read this journal, to learn its secrets, before Ben comes home?

It should surprise no one that this set-up is absolutely irresistible, and that this simple but elegant mystery makes the next three hundred plus pages just fly by. The majority of the novel is made up of the journal, which contains new, shocking revelations each day, and has the added tension of featuring Christine’s interactions with characters who don’t know that she is now aware of  the events that transpired on previous days. Far from being repetitive, this journal actually brings some welcome structure to the novel. It is well-constructed, and it allows Christine’s character to develop some emotional depth, since she is able to respond to events in her past in addition to those in her present. Naturally, it is a bit too polished for an actual journal, and Christine would have to write astonishingly quickly to get down as much information as she does, but, if you can suspend your disbelief, it is an engrossing piece of writing.

Ultimately, the greatest criticism of Before I Go to Sleep may indeed be of its implausibility, which comes out in full force by the end of the novel. Watson does seem to yield to shock value, concluding the novel on a note that feels less natural than its beginning. Still, the clues are all there, and it seems that the biggest disappointment comes simply in reaching the end. There could be no satisfactory way to end a book so rich in possibility and so compelling in mystery: any solution would be a disappointment. The joy is in the journey, and in getting to know Christine, who is refreshingly complex for a character in a thriller. The resolution satisfies, but never thrills in the way the rest of the story does. The best way to read Before I Go to Sleep is just to savor every minute of it. Rush through it, but not too quickly. You’ll want to remember this one.

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1 Comment

  1. Oh, I remember wanting to read this! Glad to hear that it is so good.

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