Guest Reviewer: Holly Duane. Thanks Holly!
Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, Text Publishing, ISBN 9781921758157, RRP $40, Available now.
This is the first novel of a man who was a medical professional when he wrote it. It is a story about Christine, a woman who wakes up not remembering that twenty years have passed. She awakes in a strange house with a strange man who tells her he is her husband, and then the novel takes the form of her journal that she is reading back entries from the last few weeks where the mysteries of who she is and what has happened to her unfold. Every night when she goes to bed she writes in her journal because every morning when she wakes up she has forgotten the previous day, and she faces the task of putting together the pieces of the puzzle.
Although the topic of memory loss has already been well explored in popular culture, this book is a very interesting insight into what it would be like to live with memory loss, and also a captivating enough mystery, with some nice twists. It is also well researched; it is obvious that the writer has an in-depth knowledge of the condition.
It proposes a frightening concept of what would happen if you lost the last twenty years of your life every time you went to sleep? When I think about this too hard I feel exhausted and claustrophobic because she is stuck in that reality with no possibility of escape, and it will only get worse the older she gets and wakes up to find herself an old woman. It shows quite well the difficulties that this poses for her husband as well and the pain he is in; the woman he has loved for twenty years never recognises him, and she constantly turns down his advances. It is easy to feel very sorry for them both.
I would call this is more of a drama than a thriller because it is not so gripping that you can’t put it down, but I like the way the story draws you into her dilemma by not telling you anything she doesn’t know, and creating the feeling of not knowing what to believe or who to trust, which is precisely the way you would feel in her situation. As she reads through the journal you wonder how we can know that she even wrote it. Can she trust what people tell her about herself? And can we trust what she is writing from her mind because it is clearly damaged?
As well as dealing with the mysteries, Christine also has to deal with the everyday tasks, and then there are the interesting complications of catching up with technology. I was expecting it to have the Groundhog Day effect of repetition because she wakes every day in confusion and has similar thoughts and reactions to her condition, but the author found a way of minimalizing this. The story is pleasantly understated and unassuming; there is a beautiful quietness about it; almost mundane, but not boring.
I enjoyed the beginning where Christine wakes up and sees a strange man sleeping next to her, and then she sees he is wearing a wedding ring, and she thinks she has slept with someone else’s husband. It made me laugh because it is exactly the way you would feel in that situation.
I also like how there is not just one mystery with a whole lot of clues, but it’s more like her whole life is a mystery and we find out things all along the way.
The novel does have a few flaws though, like where are her family? And why doesn’t she wonder this? It tells us that her parents are dead, but does not reveal whether or not she has siblings. It mentions a cousin that had visited her at some point, but does not raise the question as to where the cousin is now. Also, some of what she writes in her diary has more imagery than I would consider a person in her condition with such eager thoughts to write down would bother with, but it does make for better writing.
At the end she makes a stupid mistake that is a bit hard to believe – she hangs around when she knows she is in danger and has a perfect opportunity to escape.
And the location of this scene (which is a crucial point) is very obvious, but Christine doesn’t seem to figure it out for a while. This obviousness left me feeling a little insulted and disappointed.
But I would say the good far outweigh the bad points. The writing is nicely simple and S.J. Watson has a talent for insight into the mind of a woman. A very small handful of characters give the novel a depth that many works don’t get to. I could definitely see this book becoming a movie, which it is set to.
Holly Duane is a 26 year old New Zealand woman who lives in Auckland with her husband Ewan. She has a degree in Philosophy from Waikato University and is currently a housewife and writer.