S. J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep

If you plan to read S. J. Watson’s debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, make sure you have nothing else on your calendar that day. You will be sorely tempted to read this novel in one sitting. Before I Go To Sleep is a psychological thriller about a woman with a rare form of amnesia. It won the 2011 John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for a first book by a previously unpublished writer. The judges praised it as “a powerful and compelling suspense novel that explores the intricacies of the human mind.”

The novel opens with the words, “The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know who I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home” (3). As a result of an accident twenty years earlier, forty-seven year old Christine Lucas suffers from a debilitating type of amnesia. Every morning she wakes up forgetting what happened to her the day before and, in fact, the twenty years leading up to the present. Her husband, Ben, patiently explains who she is and who he is. A doctor phones each day and tells her to read a journal that she has hidden away from her husband. In it she documents her daily life. When she reads the words, “Don’t trust Ben,” she is deeply alarmed.

In a 2011 New York Times’s article, Janet Maslin concludes that “the summer’s single most suspenseful plot belongs to Before I Go to Sleep.” Christine Lucas lives in fear for her life because she is unable to piece together her past. She writes, “My husband is telling me one version of how I came to have no memory, my feelings another” (163). As one shocking revelation after another shakes her confidence, she concludes, “I cannot trust anybody. Not my husband. Not the man who has claimed to be helping me”

(298). If you have always taken for granted the role of memory in your life, you certainly won’t after reading this novel. When Christine discovers that her husband has been hiding crucial facts about her existence, she writes:
How tempting it must be for him to keep quiet, and how difficult life must be for him, knowing that I carry these jagged shards of memory with me always, everywhere, like tiny bombs, and at any moment one might pierce the surface and force me to go through the pain as if for the first time, taking him with me. (124)
As you can see from this excerpt, Watson is adept at language. In an interview with The Guardian, he stated, “A novel is made in the editing stage; books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.”

The Globe and Mail’s Martin Levin argues that in Before I Go to Sleep, Watson has created an impressive complex structure:
It manages to keep us simultaneously mired and in motion. The quality of the writing is exceptional, and in the frequent references to whether Christine’s recovered memories are real or confabulation – that is, creating false memories to make sense out of experience – the entire novel is a implicit commentary on story-making. All very clever.
Watson’s editor, Claire Wachtel, believes the novel hits a nerve with readers “because it tackles prosaic but fundamental fears of mental decline, aging and loss of identity.” Before I Go to Sleep also manages to do what few novels lay claim to by providing both a riveting plot and a masterful exploration of character.

Watson, S. J. Before I Go to Sleep. New York: Harper, 2011.