Before I Go To Sleep, by SJ Watson

Christine wakes to find herself in bed with a stranger. How did she get here? She can't remember the events of last night. She goes to the bathroom and finds photographs of someone who looks familiar, then sees herself in the mirror and is shocked to find the person looking back at her is an old woman. When she confronts the man she woke up with, he explains: he's her husband, and she had an accident twenty years ago which has meant that she can't retain any memories from one day to the next.

Maybe not entirely original - there are echoes of Mememto, but a pretty good idea for a story, and it made a good read. There is some degree of repetition, and Christine repeatedly goes through the same experience every morning, but this is effective in generating a feel of disorientation in the reader as well: is her memory returning, or is she simply recalling something she was told earlier that same day? So while Chrissie wonders if she might be getting better, so do we.

Fairly soon, she makes contact with a doctor who encourages her to keep a journal, which means there is some degree of continuity from day-to-day. She decides not to show her journal to her husband, without really knowing why. But as time progresses it becomes clear he's acting rather strangely, and keeping some details about her past life from her. The obvious conclusion (to the reader) is that he's somehow up to no good, but he does seem to have plausible explanations, and everyone else swears that he'd never do anything to hurt her.

I thought there was a good idea in the book: when she visits the doctor, he has her perform a task involving doing some drawing while she's only allowed to watch her hand in the mirror. He shows her video of a previous visit when she'd been asked to do the same task (which she had no memory of). He says that she's getting better, which shows that she is acquiring and retaining new memories.

It was a very enjoyable read. There were a couple of quibbles I had. First, it was a bit stretched out. After the first day's listening in the car, I gave Ella a summary of what had happened, and we both wondered "what will happen next?" But summarising the second day's listening didn't take very long, because not very much happened. I don't think this mattered too much the first time you read it, because you're just keen to keep learning more. But there were quite long sections when no new developments occurred.

Second, I think that the author missed a trick in not having people tell her different things on different days. E.g. at the start of the book, her husband said that they'd been married in 1985, and I was half-expecting that in a later section he'd say a different year, changing a detail that Chrissie would have no way to pick up on (unless she'd written it in her journal) but that the reader might notice (the book is all written in the first person, so it is a sort of unreliable narrator).

The point in the novel where it started to become clear what had happened was pretty good, and genuinely skin-crawly. But after that it was a bit standard stuff.

There were also a couple of loose ends in the story: notably there was one occasion when Chrissie's doctor turned up at the house claiming that she'd asked him, earlier that morning, to come. But she had no recollection of doing this, despite not having been to sleep all day. This felt a bit creepy in the book, and I was expecting this to be significant, but there was no explanation more than the doctor's "you memory may be playing tricks on you".

The book mostly reminded me of Nicci French, e.g. Killing Me Softly. It's the author's first book - be interesting to see whether he can manage another one that's good.

Completed : 03-Dec-2011 (audiobook)

[nickoh] [2011 books] [books homepage]