Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Book Review | Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

"As I sleep, my mind will erase everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I’m still a child. Thinking I have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me..."

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 be telling you only half the story.

Welcome to Christine's life.


It's a thankless task most days, and an impossible ask on others, but I do try and stay on top of all the Next Big Things in fiction. The comings and goings of debut authors; the latest from our greatest writers; and the hot button books that seem ripped from the headlines like episodes of the late, lamented Law and Order. The way I figure it, where there's smoke, there's usually fire.

Turns out that's something of a misconception. There is such a thing as smoke without fire -- and huge fusses over silly nothings. Here's looking at you, Stephanie Meyer! Oh, would that I could take back all the interminable hours and days I've wasted reading the likes of Twilight and I Am Number Four and The DaVinci Code, and all the other fluff I've suffered through because however-many million people couldn't possibly be wrong... could they?

Well, yes. Yes they could. Yes indeed, they often are. But not always, for equally there are a handful of truly incredible authors I'd never have found were it not for the will of the unwashed, and the general consensus seems to suggest that S. J. Watson is one such. His debut novel, Before I Go To Sleep, has been a huge hit, both here in the UK, from where Watson hails, and further afield. Before I Go To Sleep is variously described as "mesmerising," "a tour de force," and "quite simply the best debut novel [Tess Gerritsen has] ever read."

So what's it all about? In a word: memory. Twenty-some years ago, a horrendous accident left our (unreliable) narrator Christine an amnesiac who can retain only her early childhood and those new memories she makes on any given day. When she sleeps each night, the slate of her life is wiped quite clean, to be remade in the morning. It "is like dying every day. Over and over," and so Christine exists in perpetual "limbo, balanced between possibility and fact."

"As vulnerable as a child," her only solace, her only hope, is her husband, Ben, who reminds her who she is whenever she awakens... who she is, and what her life has become. But when Christine starts keeping a journal, at the urging of a doctor she's been seeing in secret, she begins to understand that Ben isn't telling her everything. In fact there are things, important things, that he's outright lying about. For her own good, he explains on those rare occasions when Christine catches him out. But how can that be true? Even if her history will hurt her, is it not still hers to have?

Who can you trust, Before I Go To Sleep asks, when you do not even know yourself? An excellent question, and one Watson seems poised to answer smartly through the first two thirds of his impressive debut. Furthermore, the novel's neat structure - composed as it of diary entries, buttressed in the first and at the last by longer scenes set "Today" - lends itself ideally to a feeling of disconnectedness, of an anxious isolation the reader has in common with Christine. For we are with her as she wakes each day with no recollection of who she is, or what she has achieved the day before; we are in her corner, and only ever hers, as she pieces together her fragmented past, on each occasion practically from scratch; nor is there any retreat from her discomfiting perspective when at night her husband tries to make love to her - a love she does not often feel, because of course she remembers nothing of it. Through the good times and the bad, the hard times and the sad, Christine is the reader, and the reader is Christine.

So too is Watson's spare prose a feat of form and function. Before I Go To Sleep is rarely beautiful, per se - and what beauty there is in its icy exposition, with its scalpel-like precision, is I think rather undercut by the wearisome repetition of certain images and descriptions - nevertheless there is a pristine quality to Watson's words which works well to set one on edge. Gripping in that regard, provocative yet not at all challenging in its characterisation of Christine and her hopeless husband Ben, and often thoughtful without falling to cod-philosophy, Before I Go To Sleep feels ready-made to deliver on the goods Watson promises.

Alas, at the point at which Before I Go To Sleep must make good on all the developments it's dangled - and there are as many sticks as carrots - it all goes a bit Pete Tong, because Watson properly botches the denouement. Attentive readers will see the unlikely twist in the tale signposted a mile off, and if it weren't disappointing enough in its own right, Watson spends the larger part of the last chapter twisting the narrative knife: explaining at some length how his explanation really does make sense, if you think about -- presumably in case you weren't quite convinced. Disappointment is one thing... insulting your reader's intelligence with such tedium another entirely. It makes for rather a crude anti-climax, I'm afraid to say; an almighty disservice to all that's come before.

I'll give Before I Go To Sleep this much: whatever my feelings for literary sensations such as those I spoke about at the beginning of this review, it had my hopes up... high up indeed. Alas, what is otherwise a pacey, considered and often impressive - if never quite incredible - first novel proves in the final summation its own worst enemy.


Before I Go To Sleep
by S. J. Watson

UK Publication: April 2011, Doubleday
US Publication: June 2011, Harper Collins

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