I’d been hearing a lot about Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (even before the publishers starting sending me teasing samplers!) and all of it was good. So last Saturday morning as a reward to myself for trekking around Birmingham’s shops for two whole hours searching for Royal Wedding souvenirs for my mother, I popped into Waterstones on New Street and asked if they had a copy. When the staff member said, “I only have signed first editions” I took it to be a sign that I was supposed to read this book.
Yes, any excuse will do.
Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love – all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may only be telling you half the story. Welcome to Christine’s life.
I don’t normally do this but let me just tell you what happens in the first chapter of this book:
A woman, Christine, wakes up in a strange room she doesn’t recognize, next to a strange man. What have I done now? she thinks to herself, assuming that she has got drunk and gone home with a stranger. But then in the bathroom she sees her reflection in the mirror and instead of the twenty-something self she was expecting, there is a woman twenty or thirty years older than that. All around the mirror are pictures and notes, flashes of a life she can’t remember having. The man wakes and explains that he is her husband, Ben, and that she’s an amnesiac who lost her memory in a horrible car accident some years before and, with it, the ability to store new memories. She forgets everything when she goes to sleep. Having calmed her down, the man leaves for work. Soon after, a phone rings. It is a doctor who claims he has been meeting with Christine, secretly, for treatment, and he tells her to look for a journal she’s been keeping. When she finds it, the first thing she sees is written on the first page: “Don’t trust Ben.”
In terms of setting the scene and hooking the reader, this book’s first chapter may be among the best ever written. The reader isn’t just hooked, but lifted from the ground, plonked into the nearest chair and kept there until the book is finished. The day I got this book I’d been up and traveling since 4am, and yet I stayed reading it, through taxi rides, airport waits, flights – all times when I should’ve been sleeping – and again when I got home, because I just couldn’t stop. The word “unputdownable” is so over-used but this book really is. You have to know what’s going on, just as much as Christine does. And when we find out… well, let’s just say that I had to put down the book and subject my sister, who was in the midst of watching Jersey Shore, to the entire plot, just so I could explain my shock at its climax. And she doesn’t read (silly girl) but she did say, “Tell me they’re making a movie of this.” (They are.)
And it’s not just the big stuff in this book that will scare the bejesus out of you: it’s the little things too. What would our lives be like without memories? Christine has been spending her days at home mostly, drinking cups of coffee, watching TV or doing the odd bit of housework. We all have days like that. But without everything that’s come before, what is it? A horrible, meaningless life. A horror in itself. A terrifying vulnerability.
This book is covered in endorsements from really big names (Lionel Shriver, Dennis Lehane, Anita Shreve, Tess Gerritsen, Joanne Harris, to name a few) and their enthusiasm suggests that they really do love this book. On any other novel at least some of them would be suspicious hyperbole, but this really is exceptional, profound, suspenseful, brilliant, terrifying and all the other words they praise it with.
Side note: I’m intrigued as to why SJ Watson’s gender has been mysteriously scrubbed from the book. There are no personal pronouns, no clues, nothing. Why does it matter whether the writer’s a man or a woman? Is it that silly publishers thing whereby they assume the reading public will not want to read a female first person narration written by a man? I really had no clue while reading it – and I couldn’t have cared less, frankly – except for one miniscule thing: at one point, Christine wears tights underneath a pair of trousers, AKA the most uncomfortable ensemble in the history of the world. Now maybe I’m the only woman who thinks this and loads of you out there are frequently donning this combo, but that got me thinking… and yes, Watson is male. But other than an odd clothing choice, there is nothing lacking in Christine’s characterization. So why the big mystery? Answers on a postcard, please…
In the meantime, read this book. But make sure your schedule’s clear before you start.