S.J. Watson: Before I Go to Sleep

This was a book club selection, and it’s one of the few I can remember where I had advance e-mails from delighted club members saying how much they loved this book.  One woman even came in and bought another copy to give to a friend.  When I finally got to reading this book – a multiple award nominee this year in the U.S., and last year in the U.K. – I found out how intelligent my book club members really are.  I loved it too, and like them, I couldn’t put it down.  I was making a drive home and had to pull into a rest stop to finish reading it.  The last book that required such a drastic measure was Michael Connelly’s The Poet.

The premise of this novel is both simple and complex.  The main character, Christine, suffers from amnesia.  Each morning she wakes up, unaware of what she’d been able to remember the day before, unsure who the strange man sleeping beside her might be.  He’s her husband.  She looks in the mirror, and is astonished at the older woman looking back at her. It’s an older version of her “remembered” self, of course. Each day, her life must be re-explained to her, and each night she falls asleep and forgets everything all over again.

That could be a monotonously horrible story line if somehow Watson wasn’t such a terrific story teller.  Each day manages to be somehow different from the one before it – for the reader, in any case.  Sometimes Christine will remember something and then find that her husband, Ben, has told her whatever it was many times before.  What Watson cleverly adds is a journal that Christine is keeping at the suggestion of her doctor, Dr. Nash, who is working with her unbeknownst to her husband.  Each morning Dr. Nash calls her and reminds her where the journal is and that she’s been keeping one, and each morning she reads it and remembers all over again what she’s written the day before.

It transpires that Christine has lost her memory in some kind of horrific accident, one she has absolutely no memory of, and the length of her amnesia – almost 20 years – is staggering.  Memories make a life, and in a very real sense, she has none.  This book takes all kinds of twist to get to its end point, an ending so shocking and surprising (and yet so meticulously set up by the author) that you’ll be smacking yourself on the forehead for not figuring it out sooner.

The pure narrative pleasure of this novel cannot be overstated, but Watson also has a lovely writing style and a wonderful hand with characters.  You’ll grow very invested in Christine and what happens to her, as well as the small cast of characters surrounding her.  When you finish it you may wish for a brief moment that you had Christine’s problem, that you could forget the story and read this wonderful book all over again.