I sigh for humanity. I’ve been asked what I’m reading a few times this week, and I wave Before I Go To Sleep at them, and explain that it’s about a woman who wakes up every morning unable to remember who she is, so everything has to be explained to her. “Oh, like that film…?” they say. “Memento?” I respond. “Hmm… no… Fifty First Dates,” they say. “Sort of…” I say.
That is the plot in a nutshell, summed up swiftly in the first gripping chapters. Christine wakes up next to a man she does not know. As far as she knows she went to sleep an eighteen-year-old. The man explains to her that he is her husband. She had an accident, and now she cannot make new memories. When she goes to sleep, they vanish. He shows her photographs, and she slowly starts to believe him. And then, after he goes to work, she is rung by her doctor who tells her about the secret journal that she keeps hidden from her husband. And that’s as far as I’m going to tell you, because otherwise I might ruin the book.
I’m not really much of a fan of thrillers, but I was gripped from page one. The set-up is original (setting aside Drew Barrymore) and more so than simply being a high-concept plot device, Watson explores exactly what something like this might do to your identity. Every day Christine wakes up with no idea of who she is, and has to piece together herself from a series of unverifiable sources.
And that’s the strength: we see only through her eyes, and the sands are constantly shifting. We have no idea who to trust, the subtlest of clues making us guess and second-guess. We know her husband is lying to her, and yet we can understand why every lie may have been told. How much of what she writes is true? Just because she has written it in her journal, should she believe it the next day? Even kindness is unnerving. As a writer, I am in constant admiration of how Watson never lets us get a secure foothold, never feels secure, and all without becoming repetitive or relying on cheap suspense tricks.
And Christine, the narrator, is a wonderful character–real, flawed, confused and difficult without becoming tiresome. The beauty of the concept is that her character builds as her own sense of person builds; we grow to understand her as she does. One of the glowing interior quotes claims that this is a ‘very literary thriller’ and that is true–aside from suspense, it also revels in the existential problem it poses. But don’t worry, it’s still the mystery at the centre that powers the whole thing.