Book Review – Before I Go to Sleep
Suppose you went to bed one night, woke up the next morning and everything you knew was suddenly different; the room you are in strange and unfamiliar. So is the man with whom you find yourself in bed. You take note of his wedding band, step into what must be his wife’s shoes and cannot believe your actions as you head to the bathroom. But what if, worse, the face in the mirror is not recognizable as your own? Sure, it’s you. Only looking some 20-odd years older. Disbelief is not the word as you see yourself smiling with the man you left asleep in bed. The married man. You are wrapped in his arms in pictures all over – walking on a quay, beside a lake, together somewhere in a house – the same man hugging you in every photograph taped around the bathroom mirror. There are notes from him, addressed to you. A name written in a manner that is almost childish: a scribbled name at the end of an arrow: Christine. And pointing to his head is a similar arrow and thee word at the end of it reads Ben. But then there are two more jarring, more disturbing words: Your Husband. Imagine the subsequent feeling of despair that doesn’t really creep up so much as it sweeps over you. Tears don’t run; it is more that they pour out in streams. A scream stifled in your throat escapes as a gasp.
Before I Go to Sleep examines a seemingly simplistic plot: an amnesiac who can retain only bits of information while awake forgets all as soon as she falls asleep. The Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler flick 50 First Dates comes to mind. Until one reads the novel and discovers there is a different kind of funny stuff going on here.
Protagonist Christine Wheeler has only memories of her days as a young adult and sometimes, a teenager. As she learns, she is the victim of a hit-and-run, and has been an amnesiac since then, missing out on over 20 years of her own life. Having slept through all of the 90’s, Christine doesn’t know anything about cellular phones and fireworks, about the war on terror sparked just after the turn of the century, that she is married, has a husband, lives in Crouch End, London. Some mornings, she doesn’t know that her name is Christine Wheeler.
Her husband, Ben, has been taking care of her ever since the accident. He must tell her every morning who and where she is, what she is like and even whether they are in love. Also helping Christine remember is Dr. Nash, a neurologist. Christine begins seeing him during the days when she is alone at home and Ben is at work. Dr. Nash, in helping her try to improve her memory, recommends that Christine begin keeping a journal to record her thoughts. She does. And she hides the journal, along with the fact that she has been seeing Dr. Nash from Ben. Why? Ben doesn’t like the idea of doctors like Nash using Christine’s condition for research purposes. But Dr. Nash, however, fast becomes Christine’s only anchor between her and the days, which shift around her like waves. When she is startled with newness each time she wakes, and Ben fills her in on everything she doesn’t remember, Dr. Nash also helps her to track the day before by calling every morning to tell her where she has hidden her journal.
In Christine’s journal are recorded bits of information, her attempt to remember how she is feeling, or how she felt at particular moments and about particular persons, especially Ben. To her credit, writer S J Watson’s ability to tell the story of Christine Wheeler is brilliant, absorbing and, immediately horrifying when she deftly turns the story on its head with just one line; Christine wakes up one morning and sees it in her own handwriting, on the front page of the journal: “Don’t Trust Ben!” Why did she write them? She doesn’t know. But everything and everyone from then on is a suspect. Things begin to fall apart, and, like her blurry memory, the truth comes slowly into focus.
As the reader journeys with Christine who checks out from time to time, pulled away by flashes of memory in to the past, sometimes things get a bit repetitive: she feels like a burden on her husband, a stranger to herself, constantly unsure of whether she should trust Ben or fear him. She trusts her doctor, but feels an attraction she can’t be sure she feels guilty about, or can explain. She wants to remember everything, but she does not. She wants to love Ben wholly, but cannot. There are days she understands he must love her dearly, to not have left her, to have been taking such good care of an amnesiac wife. On the other days, she can’t stand his penchant for treating her as if she is fragile – even though she is – when she’s obviously a grown woman, a wife, lost in a life that she cannot remember. It is important for her to know which of her memories are real and not imagined and which are confabulations to fill spaces where gaps exist. Is Ben simply caring or hiding something? And what is this pull inside her towards Dr. Nash?
Ironically, the same feelings and questions which are repeated each day she wakes are what help to build the integrity of the story. And when you think you already know what Christine needs to be told, what she will find written in her diary, what she will encounter when she picks up the phone and dials a number, you are indeed in for a surprise. But isn’t that just the nature of suspense? There are some things that only Christine knows, that only she can remember – her secrets – and those are the things which will prove detrimental to her better understanding her life.
But in the end it is the reader’s mind that becomes clouded as Christine comes to remember the things that she has forgotten, until the last piece of the puzzle is fully revealed. A true psychological thriller, S J Watson’s debut novel manages to keep her readers pinned. Offering a most riveting climax that will keep you from sleeping until it ends, Before I Go to Sleep might, incidentally, be bad to read before bedtime: in the last 100 pages or so, this book is hard to put down; in the last 50, it is absolutely impossible!