Book of the week : Before I Go To Sleep - S J Watson

“I feel nothing at all, not even when, sitting on a sideboard, I see a framed photograph of the two of us,” says Christine, who narrates S.J. Watson’s debut thriller, Before I Go to Sleep

Christine Lucas doesn’t have much on her mind, and that’s a problem. She wakes up one morning in a strange bedroom next to a total stranger, a man wearing a wedding ring. She wonders if the man’s wife will come storming in any minute and thinks to escape before that can happen. Mortified and naked, she pads down the hallway to a bathroom she doesn’t recognize, assuming that this is the day after a one-night stand, until she looks in the mirror. The face staring back at her is twenty years older than it’s supposed to be. Horror grips her, confusion spins her, and she realizes she doesn’t know who she is

She sees photos of herself, twenty years older than she thought she was, taped to the bathroom mirror. She also sees photos of the man from the bed, labelled “Ben, your husband.”

With the soothing familiarity of a well-worn explanation, Ben tells Christine she’s suffering from amnesia, the result of a hit-and-run accident that happened 18 years ago when she was 29 years old. They’ve been married 22 years, he tells her. This is how they begin each day, with Ben then showing Christine a scrapbook with some photographs of their life together. Though there are no wedding pictures, she accepts what Ben tells her each day and can remember all of it and anything else she learns or does for just one whole day, until she goes to sleep. When she wakes up in the morning, it’s all gone and the horror and confusion plays out all over again

At the suggestion of a neuropsychologist called Dr Nash, Christine has begun keeping a journal, in the hope that it will help jar her lost memories. Pointedly, she doesn’t tell Ben about the journal or about Dr.Nash. Christine’s condition is unusual, Dr.Nash tells her. Many amnesiacs can remember everything but the immediate past or the days surrounding an accident, for example. A smaller number of amnesiacs can’t retain memories of any sort

Neither type of amnesia adequately defines Christine’s case. While she has no memories newer than early childhood, she seems “to remember whole chunks of time — up to 24 hours — which you then lose,” Dr. Nash tells her. “That’s not typical. To be honest, it doesn’t make any sense, considering the way we believe that memory works”

One day, Dr. Nash hands Christine her journal and suggests she read it. “It will explain everything,” he says. “Better than I can.”

Back at home, Christine opens the journal and finds a shocking warning on its first page: “Don’t trust Ben.”

As she reads the entries, her husband’s account of her amnesia-inducing accident becomes suspect, as do other parts of the story he has told her, day after day. But can Christine trust Dr. Nash?

For that matter, can she trust anyone?

Is Ben truly the loving husband or up to no good? What about Dr.Nash? And who is the mysterious redhead who keeps popping up in Christine’s mind in various settings? Are these mere fabrications of imagination produced by her broken brain or are they real memories of a dear friend long, long gone? Watson’s masterful foreshadowing beckons the reader to hang on with bated breath from the first page to the last and duplicates within the reader the same sense of urgency to get to the truth of who Christine Lucas was, who she is now, what is real and what is not

Watson makes us feel for Christine and wary of those who claim to care for her. Together, both reader and character take this terrifying journey through darkness and we hope and pray that together we will find light at the end that will restore the peace and clarity that was stolen from Christine twenty years ago. We need to know, will she ever get that back? Or will evil forces in her life keep her in the dark forever or worse, put an end to her fragile sanity for good?

Like a sinister mash-up of 50 First Dates-meets-Groundhog Day, where the adorably funny cockeyed romance is replaced by fear, mistrust, and spellbinding mystery, Before I Go to Sleep is a page-turning thriller. The title perfectly encapsulates Christine’s own, much more urgent, desire not to fall asleep yet. Each slumber is a kind of death. We expand our life by building on our memories; Christine must live as full a life as she can each day, because she starts completely from scratch again the next. And she must do this while dealing with potential half-truths and lies from people she has no choice but to trust

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April 30, 2012

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