Contemporary Fiction

Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep is a book about a woman with anterograde amnesia, or the inability to retain short term memory.  She remembers her life in her early twenties and earlier, but nothing after that.  She’s in her forties.

In a first chapter that is immediately compelling, Christine wakes up in a strange room in bed with a strange man.  She thinks she must have partied too hard the night before.  Then she stumbles into the bathroom and discovers two things.  First, she has the hands and face of a woman in her forties, and second, there are photographs and notes lining the bathroom mirror that indicate that she lives in this house, and the man in bed is her husband, Ben.

Reminiscent of the movie 50 First Dates, Ben sits her down with a cup of coffee and a scrapbook.  Just as Christine is adjusting to the news that she has to start her life over each day, she receives a call from her doctor, Dr. Nash, who asks her to meet with him.  As if things aren’t difficult enough, he suggests that she not tell Ben about the meeting. When she asks why, he can’t give her an answer.

This book sucks you in from page one, and doesn’t let go.  If you find memory loss interesting, this book does a great job of both telling a story, and exploring Christine’s condition.  As a reader you get lots of hints that things are wrong but no clear answers.

Watson does a nice job of writing Christine as an interesting character who is more than just her memory loss.  In the first chapter, as she finds out about her condition, Ben leaves her at home all day with little suggestions about chores she can do.  And in the face of all the obvious problems she needs to confront, she also thinks to herself, this is what I do each day?  A life without friends, family, and meaningful work?  Surely she can do more than sweep the house or cook dinner.  Ben also gives her a fairly simplistic version of her life – surely there must be more to a life of forty-some years than “we got married” and “you had an accident”?  But how much do you tell a person who will only forget it the next morning?

Dr. Nash gives Christine a journal that she has been keeping over the last few weeks, and it is this journal that forms most of the story.  Christine has to reconstruct her life each day and the journal helps her store knowledge and add to it.  The journal itself prompts her to ask more questions about her life and learn new truths about her life.  However, each of these truths only add  to the mystery – is one of these two men lying to Christine?  If so, why?  How can she find out who she really is?  And if she does, will it be lost the next day?

In some ways, I loved the use of the journal as a structure for the book.  First, because those of us who write know how writing leads you to think and question in a different way, and this is exactly what happens to Christine.  Writing is power, and for her it becomes an absolute necessity.

I also like the tension that the journal creates.  Christine can forget about the journal each day.  What if she forgets where she put it?  It could be stolen from her or destroyed, so at any given time, everything she’s learned can be lost.  Should she give the journal to Ben?  To the doctor?  Whoever holds the journal holds everything Christine has and is.  But she isn’t sure who she can trust.

My only complaint about the book is a small one – the journal is unrealistically detailed and long, for a woman who has to write bits and pieces during each day.  When you keep a journal, you don’t write description and dialogue the way a novelist would.  It’s critical to the story that she keep a detailed journal, so she can retain knowledge from day to day.  I just didn’t find the journal to be very realistic.

It’s also a little repetitive – it gets a little Groundhog Day after a while — but your life would be repetitive too, if you woke up each day and had to start over.

Is Christine’s form of amnesia unrealistic? Watson seems to have done a fair amount of research on anterograde amnesia, which makes this book much more chilling – it might be rare, but it does happen.  In fact there are cases where people have had short term memory that resets every few minutes.  She provides a lot of detail about amnesia through Dr. Nash, so this didn’t feel like just some made-up concept.  Watson concedes on her blog that the idea of sleep wiping someone’s memory is not medically valid, but it does provide for a good read.

I’m intrigued by memory loss, if only for the one experience I’ve had with it.  When I was fourteen I was struck by a car while running across a six-lane street.  I was unbelievably lucky not to suffer a major head injury, but I broke bones from shoulder to hip to knee.  I remember nothing of the incident, or the hours before or after, even though I was awake and coherent most of the time.  I “awoke” in the hospital I don’t know how many hours later; I was patched -up and pain-free, and had absolutely no idea what had happened. To this day, I can remember the clothes I was wearing that day but I can’t remember leaving school, walking home, or running in front of that car.

I worried at the time, and for years afterward, about having nightmares or waking up one day with the memory of that car racing towards me.  The doctor said it wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t.  But it’s buried in my head somewhere, and I know it almost every time I cross a street.   And that was 26 years ago.

In my case, memory loss was a cushion — there’s something comforting about knowing that the mind can shut down when it needs to.  In this book, however, what memory does to Christine is horrible.  Never mind the whole thriller aspect of the story – just the idea of waking up every day and starting over is terrifying.  You can’t know for sure who anyone is.  Maybe there’s some dastardly plot, or maybe it’s just Christine trying to piece her world together every day, and to build an independent, meaningful life for herself.

I’m not much of a “thriller” reader, but I’d recommend this book to most people.  It’s a quick, interesting and suspense-filled read.  It got me through a very long and extremely unpleasant day of travel.  It’s a book you won’t put down once you’ve started.

2 thoughts on “Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

  1. Pingback: Review: Before I Go to Sleep | Giraffe Days

  2. I thought the same thing about the journal entries being so long and detailed (which is always the case in fiction isn’t it?!) but I decided I could suspend disbelief because she was a writer, and I know that whatever I write it always ends up too long and detailed and I like to get everything down. I don’t know that I could do that and read the entire thing in a day, on top of actually doing stuff that day! But then again, I know some people who are incredibly fast readers, they make me feel quite ponderous!

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience, too. It does raise some interesting points about how our memories work. Reminds me of how our brains block out the memories, the intensity, of labour and childbirth – for me, I can still remember it quite well, but I can’t remember how the pain felt. And with Hugh now 11 months old, I feel prepared and even excited about the prospect of having another (while afterwards I was in a traumatised state! Adam is still in that state so he’s not ready to talk about having another yet!).

    Did you find, like I did, that for a lot of the book I wasn’t even sure if it was a thriller? There were plenty of times I thought, maybe this is as innocent as it seems and it’s more of a drama story. But there was always that tension, and little details here and there that your gut knew was off. I love those kinds of stories!

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