Friday, October 21

Before I Go to Sleep - SJ Watson

Christine wakes one morning in an unfamiliar bed next to a stranger with grey hair and a wedding ring. Though they're usually younger and single, the experience isn't a new one, but Christine has no recollection of the night before. she tiptoes to the bathroom, and that's when things start to become strange - her hands are wrong, old, and she's got a band on her left ring finger. Startled, she looks in the mirror and sees the face of a stranger - an old woman.
According to the man, Ben, eighteen years earlier Chris was in an accident that caused a rare form of amnesia - she can retain information for a day, but as soon as you gos to sleep for more than a nap it all goes. Sometimes she can remember parts of her twenties, and sometimes she thinks she's a girl, but she never remembers anything leading up to the accident or following it.
That premise is what lead me to pick up Before I Go to Sleep, and the idea of an exploration of identity reconstruction is fascinating. However, Watson's added a tense element - Chris discovers a journal, kept for weeks, where her previous selves details fragments they remember of their old life and secret therapy sessions with Dr Nash, a psychologist Ben refused to let see her. She learns about things Ben has kept from her, apparently to reduce distress, including the existence and death of their son. And on the cover of the journal, underlined, is the warning "Don't trust Ben!"
As the journal progresses Chris learns more about herself and her life, and becomes increasingly distrustful - about Ben, her therapist, and the reliability of the journal entries she wrote but can't remember. She also discovers that the act of writing things down has, as Dr Nash hoped, has allowed the waking her to retain some of that information. It also let her build up a more coherent picture of her post-accident life, including a lengthy stay is a psychiatric unit.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Before I Go to Sleep is the beautifully executed unreliable narrator - like the very different but equally compelling We Need to Talk About Kevin, the single voice illuminates and clouds, creating a nivel that is both literary and genuinely gripping. As Anita Shreve says on the jacket, Before I Go to Sleep is "Brilliant in its pacing, profound in its central question, suspenseful on very page." I absolutely couldn't say it better myself. - Alex

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