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Memories are made of this
Before I Go to Sleep - S J Watson
Member Name: ladybracknell
Before I Go to Sleep - S J Watson
Advantages: A gripping story with lots of plot twists and turns
Disadvantages: Some anomalies which don't ring true
When Richard and Judy appeared on The One Show recently to promote the launch of their book club for this year, they mentioned Before I Go To Sleep written by S J Watson, which is one of their choices. Out of curiosity, I looked it up on Amazon and apart from a few dissenting voices, the reviews seemed to be very favourable. At £2.70 for the Kindle edition I felt the premise of the story was interesting enough to be worth buying it.
Christine Lucas is a middle aged woman but every morning she wakes up in a strange room, in a strange bed, next to a man she doesn't know and she thinks she's a young woman. When she catches sight of herself in the mirror, she's horrified to see a much older face than she expects and one she doesn't recognise, only the eyes seem familiar. When the strange man wakes, he tells her he's Ben, her husband and that she had an accident when she was 29 which damaged her brain in such a way that each night as she sleeps her memories are wiped away and every morning she has to be told who she is and about her life before she lost her memory. When Christine sees a new consultant about her condition, he advises her to keep a diary and then one morning, after a call from her doctor, she opens the diary to read the words 'Don't tell Ben' and Christine is plunged even further into a confusing world where she's unsure just who to trust and whether they are friend or foe.
Although the premise of this book isn't a particularly new one, it's certainly different enough to make a welcome change from the usual psychological thriller and I've found in the past that Richard and Judy's recommendations tend to be enjoyable reads. This one was no exception.
The story is told from Christine's perspective so the reader only ever gets to see events as she experiences them. As an older woman myself, I've experienced mornings when I've woken up feeling young and lovely and got the shock of my life when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror so I immediately felt a great deal of empathy with Christine. However, unlike her, my memories come flooding back very quickly, hers don't.
S J Watson, somewhat surprisingly, is a man. I say surprisingly because men who can write from a female perspective, or indeed even choose to do so, are pretty rare. I felt the author did a fairly competent job at replicating a female psyche and the Rip van Winkle elements were interesting and thought provoking. For instance, when Christine looks in the food cupboards, she sees food she's never heard of such as Arborio rice and cous cous. Her food memories are of what was eaten over twenty years ago. I did find it strange that Ben did all the cooking and housework, however, as Christine wasn't physically incapable and surely her memory loss wouldn't result in not knowing how to cook, even if at a basic level. Another thing which pinpointed the fact that this was a man writing about a woman was that when Christine examines herself in the mirror, she initially fails to notice she has stretch marks. I don't think there's a woman alive who wouldn't immediately spot her own stretch marks. Something of an elementary mistake, my dear Watson!
When Christine meets up with the doctor who claims to have been treating her for several weeks, she discovers more about herself and it appears that she's only recently returned home to live with Ben. She also learns that her condition is rare and the doctor tells her she has severe impairment of her episodic memory but confesses that a condition where memory is lost overnight doesn't tally with what the medical profession know about how human memory works. When the doctor hands her a journal which he claims she's been keeping in secret, Christine discovers that not only has she been seeing the doctor without Ben's knowledge but when she reads the book she realises that the man who has told her he's her husband is someone she doesn't trust.
Having set the scene, the author then allows the reader to read Christine's journal along with her. We discover how she lost her memory, that she'd been working as a secretary, despite having a PhD, and that she has some brief flashes of memory from her previous life, all of which are carefully noted in her journal and hidden from Ben. What we don't know is whether these snippets of information are fact or fiction. As the journal progresses, the web of intrigue grows and in many ways the reader is as confused as Christine. Is Ben who he says he is? There is photographic evidence but Christine doesn't think the relationship feels right. 'To me he was a stranger; though intellectually I knew we got into bed together every night, had done so since we were married, still my body had known him for less than a day.'
The author very cleverly builds Christine's personality as the book progresses. In the beginning she's a blank page, exactly like her mind, but as we read through her journal a picture of who she was begins to emerge and more and more questions about her marriage to Ben arise. Very conveniently, no photographs exist of their wedding day because most of their personal possessions were lost in a fire at their home shortly after they married, or so she's told. Is it the truth? She doesn't know and neither do we and we feel just as fearful as she does, especially as she discovers more information about her life which Ben has been withholding.
As Christine is the narrator, everything is experienced through her eyes which on the one hand limits the story but on the other helps to build the psychological tension in a way that wouldn't be possible if the novel had been written in the third person. Just when I thought I had a handle on Ben or Christine's early life, something would happen to completely pull the rug from under the argument. This novel is full of plot twists and turns which left me every bit as confused as Christine.
If I have any beef with this book, it's the ending which I just didn't find very convincing, however, on the whole I enjoyed this novel. There are some glaring anomalies, especially with regard to the fact that someone so obviously damaged is allowed to leave hospital, but it's a compelling read nevertheless and I found it almost impossible to put down. As a psychological thriller, it's not exactly frightening but certainly gave me a distinct feeling of unease and I couldn't help but wonder how I would feel and react in a similar situation.
This book is currently available in paperback from about £3 and the Kindle version available for slightly less.
Summary: An enjoyable psychological thriller