Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

Before I Go To Sleep (2011)
S. J. Watson
Grade: B+
Genre: psychological thriller
Sex scenes: the boring type you get in mainstream fiction
Source: library

There was a lot of hype about Before I Go To Sleep when I was on a work experience at Random, which is how this book was brought to my attention. It was high in the charts and the book club title on Eastenders for that week. The concept sounded interesting and my curiosity was piqued; being a Random book, it was likely deliver. When I saw it at the library, I thought that I might as well go for it, otherwise I would never pick it up again.

Memories are precious things; without them we would have no identity, no links with our fellow humans and nothing to attach us to the world around us. Christine knows what this is like; or, at least, she re-learns what this is like on a daily basis. Every morning, she wakes up lying in a stranger’s bed, next to a married man after a one-night-stand, with no idea where she is. The truth is that she lost her memory in a terrible accident and has to re-learn everything about her life every day before she goes to sleep, only to forget it all again by morning.

At the start of the novel, Christine is contacted by Dr Nash, a neuropsychologist specialising in brain disorders who tells her that they’ve been meeting behind Ben’s back for weeks. Christine has been making good progress, but Dr Nash thinks more can be done. Together, they visit places from Christine’s past and run tests to try and see the extent to which her memory has lapsed. It may seem futile considering she’ll forget Dr Nash’s very existence the next day, but Christine is willing to try anything. When Dr Nash suggests that she starts a diary, Christine agrees with enthusiasm. In it, she records every minutia of her day and what Ben tells her of her accident and their life together. Before long, the diary becomes Christine’s lifeline as she increasingly learns more from her notes in her diary than the people around her. Her diary is something that she has instinctively kept from Ben and when one morning, she finds a message written in her own hand warning her not to trust him, Christine finds herself doubting everything that she has been told from the person she’s meant to trust the most …

I am glad I read this book. It’s not the type of thing that I normally read and so it’s always a new learning curve when I read something completely outside of my comfort zone alongside my regular reading material. I’m not very big on keeping up with the bestseller charts and so while they always give me hundreds of suggestions on what’s currently popular and what looks interesting and new to read, I hardly ever act on these suggestions.

I hadn’t been expecting the twist, but then again, I never do. Psychological thrillers aren’t my forte and so I’ll have to be forgiven if it was as obvious as the sky is blue. Even if this were they type of book that I read day-in, day-out, I don’t think that I would like to be able to predict the surprise in the book. I like to be shocked by the turn in events and so if I can guess what will happen before it does, that takes some of the fun out of it. I think that this is just a long-winded way of saying that I’m glad that I don’t read psychological thrillers regularly, because otherwise they would become too boring for my taste.

This was a creepy read. You can never really trust Christine because you know that she’s just going to forget everything the next day – what if she doesn’t manage to write something down, or she’s told something and simply accepts it as the truth because she doesn’t know any better to contradict it? Yes, it was clear that she wanted the absolute truth as much as the reader does, but she’s forever taking five steps back for her single step forward and there’s a constant feeling of having fallen at the first hurdle.

There were times when I found myself quite freaked out. There’s a reason that I don’t read these types of books and while I wasn’t scared, nor am I put off the genre, I wouldn’t willingly pick something of this type off the shelf if I had other alternatives. Yes, I enjoyed it, but I think subconsciously, I was imagining myself in such a situation and wanting to run a mile in the opposite direction.

Like I thought of My Name is Memory, BIGTS reminds me of Good Morning Lucy in that the heroine forgets everything that has happened that day by the time that she wakes up the next morning. Two major differences that I can identify off the top of my head. Firstly, in GML, Lucy can remember everything about her life up until the day before her accident. Christine’s memory in BIGTS is patchy and hugely variable. On some days she wakes as an adult and on others, she believes that she’s barely out of her teens. Considering that she comes to rely on her diary so much, it’s hugely debateable how much she actually remembers and retains without the help of her notes. Christine’s plight makes the reader hugely sympathetic towards her situation, but you find it very difficult to come to trust her and so I never felt like I made a bond with her as a reader. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in.

Secondly, GML is a comedy; BIGTS is nothing of the sort. I’m thinking that loss of memory is my biggest nightmare. I said in my review of Dead Scared that I wasn’t completely sure what would be my breaking point in terms of being scared to death. I think that losing my memories and identity would be it. It must be terrifying to wake up every day not knowing where you were and why you had aged twenty years overnight; I’m a little surprised that Christine is mostly calm about it, but this might be a subconscious thing after having done it so many times. Yes, there’s an underlying optimism at the end of the book that perhaps this time, things will be different and Christine will wake up with her memory restored, but you can never shake the negativity that everything will carry on as it always had. It’s unnerving.

I also thought that there’s also some comparisons to be drawn to Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, but seeing as how I was even more horrified by the twist in that book than I was in BIGTS (and apparently, the twist in the former was even more predictable) I’m not going to say anything more.

So what do I mean by ‘the boring type you get in mainstream fiction’ when it came to the sex scenes? Well, exactly that. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting something of a romance author type-calibre, but it always astounds me how unsexy and unerotic sex scenes are when in a regular fiction book. It’s actually slightly depressing how badly they can be written. Those in BIGTS are nowhere near the worst that I’ve seen, but they’re definitely not something to shout about.

This was a great book in many ways. It was well written, the plot was unique and I wasn’t bored by the repetitiveness of much of the stuff that we have to go over for Christine’s sake. In fact, it seemed like every time we heard the same fact or detail about her past, it was with a slightly different slant and I really liked this. I’m not sure that I have the nerve to pick this up again, but this might just be my memory exaggerating what I felt when I read this book. I’ll never know unless I try it again …

Image courtesy of Fantastic Fiction

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