Friday, 3 February 2012

Book Review: Before I Go To Sleep - SJ Watson

Tagged ‘Crime Thriller of the Year’ in 2011, ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ is based around amnesia and its mystery. It has been compared to films like ‘Inception’, ’50 First Dates’ and ‘Groundhog Day’, however, these could be seen as quite superficial comparisons really.

As I've said before, I am curious about how memories are linked to identity. Recollection ability that can only take on a day in your life is a minefield with lost people from your reality. Your mind wiped on waking each morning, personally does feel me with dread, especially as I find forgetfulness inconvenient enough.

The book, mostly well received as a debut novel, has come into some criticism for flimsier aspects of its ‘science’ although I think the story is gripping enough to overlook details of sketchy healthcare once a patient is discharged. To be honest, I can see how mistakes could be made and how someone pretty determined could trip up the system.

Without too many spoilers then, very simply the book is the story of Chrissie, an amnesiac who has suffered some sort of accident (avoiding spoilers here) as a younger woman that has left her unable to process memories beyond one day; on sleeping she wakes each morning not knowing who she is, who her husband is, where she lives and exists on a daily basis having to re learn her identity and sadly, to lose it again.

For her husband, and the only medical expert she conspiratorially sees through most of the story, Doctor Nash, and for us the reader, this does involve a lot of repetition as the story unfolds in an increasingly unsettling way. I didn’t have too much of a problem with this though as it does give the story a claustrophobic credibility, hemmed in by her dependence on really two main people, her husband and her doctor, to tell her who she is and also their combined frustration at times for having to relive minor and even mundane details.

I did feel for her constant dilemma over whether to trust her husband, as it is clear from the beginning that something is not as it seems. He appears to care and deceive (or mislead for her own good), as does the doctor. At times, she questions even what she herself reads in her journal as a possible ‘fiction’ in her head and you do kind of reel between the three in various levels of disbelief, belief and general perplexing disorientation.  Criticisms of the structure in the novel from some, for me personally, helped in creating identification with her own murky loss of events and people at points.

You also inevitably question the validity of her doctor and get pulled into her confusion and paranoia when she has no real foundation of which to make a judgement from. The start of her journal to document her days and an almost instinctive need for her to keep it hidden lends well to there being a remaining modicum of her own sense of ‘self’. 

This is further backed by her delicate sense of knowing she is a mother despite the discrepancies in her mind and what those tell her about it. As she gets better at remembering small details and almost seems to ‘exercise’ her brain to pull up details, mostly from trauma, it gives some hope, if at times dashed by the muddied waters of memory that can twist and distort, even invent inaccuracies, and even by the most efficient accounts of recall.

I think SJ Watson did a good job of keeping up the consistency of someone with no memory, highlighting things in everyday life we take for granted with regarding it. I liked the strangely small suburban setting, in some ways the ordinariness of how she lives makes it all the more believable and gives it a provincial sinister feel despite being set in London. Although there were a few pointers that were a little too revealing from the start, the big twist at the end did elude me, I kind of guessed it but not quite. You feel there’s a building of tension and know something horrific is going to be revealed, or is intended for Chrissie, but it is mostly just out of grasp as you read it.

My main criticism would be that the last part was rather rushed and although I can see the ending could frustrate finality fetishists; I liked the uncertainty and preservation of the fragility of the human memory. And to end on a positive note, I think SJ Watson wrote from a female perspective and in the first person with uncanny authenticity…well done him. A worthwhile read.

Previous Book Review

A Sense of An Ending - by Julian Barnes

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