To what extent do our memories define us? Are they essential to our notions of identity? Can we know our own selves without the memory and knowledge of the journey our lives have taken? What if we woke up each morning with no recollection of how we got there, all new memories erased as we slept? These are some of the questions that SJ Watson tackles in his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep.
A crime thriller and popular title in Richard & Judy’s 2012 book club selection, I was a little wary of Before I Go to Sleep, expecting it to be something of a holiday read. Surprisingly, I found this novel’s appeal reaches a little further than the average crime title, drawing the reader in to a guessing game about who is to be trusted and deeper meditations on the influence that memory has on our definitions of self.
The plot is focalised through the character of Christine, a woman in her late forties who has lost most of her memories from childhood onwards due to an accident. The reader sees her wake up in an unfamiliar bed, naked, stripped of her memory and any hint of how she ended up there. She believes she is still in her early twenties and her first thoughts are of a drunken night after which she has woken up in an unknown married man’s bed. However, she is abruptly brought up to date by her husband Ben and the photos of them stuck next to the bathroom mirror. It is later revealed that she has begun to keep a diary at the suggestion of a doctor, who phones her each morning to tell her where she has hidden it in the house.
The diary becomes a substitute for her own memories, and she reads her previous entries each day, discovering simultaneously with the reader, the story of her past, and present. As time goes on memories come back to her in flashes, images and conversations that lead her closer to discovering the truth about herself and the people around her, and most importantly, who she can trust. The diary becomes a catalyst for new memories to appear, and Christine begins to grab on to her identity as she begins to wake up some days with some of her memories intact. Something sinister lurks in her past but the memory is stubborn and the reader begins to wonder if she will ever be able to uncover it. Even Christine herself isn’t immune from scrutiny as things are revealed that perhaps she would prefer to keep buried.
I found myself flicking through the book and catching a few words from the last page out of the corner of my eye and trying to piece together the ending of the story, much in the same way as Christine herself is continuously trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. It is intriguing how SJ Watson maintains the freshness of each new diary entry and this contributes to the pace of the thriller as the reader is keen to find out how much, if any, she will remember when she awakes the next day.
What evolves is a touching and chilling account of a woman in search of her identity, pieced together by what she can see around her and the information that is filtered to her by her husband and doctor. She cannot come to terms with what has been to her an overnight change from a woman in her early twenties to a woman approaching fifty, when what she is told by her husband doesn’t quite feel right. Perhaps finding out who she really is will always remain just outside her grasp.
Something I was somewhat surprised to discover was that SJ Watson is, in fact, a man. He sensitively describes Christine’s reaction to the changes in her body, her preoccupations and natural instincts. Although some of the images may seem obvious, those of a woman getting ready for a night with a lover, bathing, shaving and selecting clothes, it does overwhelmingly feel like a woman’s voice.
It isn’t surprising that this book is currently topping the bestsellers list, having just spent its fourth week at the top. It is an intelligent thriller which successfully marries the suspicion and vulnerability of a woman struggling to regain her memory. It is definitely worth a read and may even get you thinking about just how essential your memories are to your life.