I was actually recommended SJ Watson’s debut novel ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by none other than Tess Gerritsen, who you will all know I am a huge fan of, back in November when I grilled her. Just on her word alone (and indeed she is quoted on the cover of the novel too) I would have read this yet when it arrived at Savidge Reads HQ I also saw there were remarkable quotes from two of my other favourite authors Sophie Hannah and Val McDermid. The only problem with such high praise from sources I regard so highly is that there was a certain level of expectation before I have even turned the first page. I can tell you though that this praise is indeed founded.
Imagine waking up in a bed you don’t remember getting into and lying next to a man that you don’t recognise. Could this be another drunken night out? Imagine the fear of going to the bathroom only to find the face in the mirror isn’t yours, or is it? This is the daily sequence of events each morning for Christine Lucas, a woman who we discover wakes up every morning with the same feeling of utter confusion because she has amnesia and one that reoccurs every time she has a deep sleep. It transpires that the man she is lying next to is her husband, Ben, and that her condition has been lasting for decades since a terrible accident.
This could make for an interesting novel in itself; however SJ Watson adds something that takes this psychological thriller to the next level. You see as the day goes on Chrissie gets a call from a Dr Nash, a man who says he has been treating her for some time without the knowledge of her husband. Chrissie is naturally suspicious until Dr Nash tells her to look in her wardrobe for the journal that he knows she has been keeping. She does, and is distressed to discover on the very first page the words ‘DON’T TRUST BEN.’ From here we, along with Chrissie, read back through her history. Only of course the problem is as we read on, discovering many a secret, twist and turn, is who do we believe?
“I have the bedroom door closed. I am writing this in private. In secret. I can hear my husband in the living room – the soft sigh of the sofa as he leans forward or stands up, an occasional cough, politely stifled – but I will hide this book if he comes upstairs. I will put it under the bed, or the pillow. I don’t want him to see I am writing in it. I don’t want to have to tell him how I got it.”
The premise of the book is a good one, it’s the way that Watson writes and weaves the tale that really sets it apart. He really gets into the mind of a character who must face the fact that they in many ways have lost themselves as well as their trust in the people around them that they think are dear. Its this feeling of utter confusion mixed with a sense of self loss, and much more as you discover as the book goes on, that really makes you empathise with Chrissie. The way the novel is written gently forces you into her mind. This only adds to the helplessness of Chrissie’s situation.
“I had been right. I felt my mind begin to close down, as if it couldn’t process any more grief, any more of this scrambled past, but I knew I would wake up tomorrow and remember none of this.”
The fact that we only have the journal, which is the form the novel takes for the main part of the book, means we can only learn what Chrissie learns and relearns each day. The problem is do we trust her very own word, can we be sure that what she is telling herself hasn’t been planted by someone else? Are we sure she can’t trust Ben? To top it all off Watson also uses the science behind amnesia to add to this too. People with amnesia tend to confabulate and invent history as a way of coping, as Dr Nash reminds Chrissie every now and again. This of course then makes us question why Dr Nash keeps saying this, does he know more than he is letting on? Who on earth can we trust? The answer is no one and that’s what makes this domestic thriller, there are no police detectives to be seen, so enthralling.
I did worry that the novel was going to become rather repetitive. In part because of the situation that Chrissie finds herself in, re-learning every morning, but also because for the first three quarters of the book there are only three characters to be found. Therefore there are going to be certain facts, explanations and scenes (I can’t say more for fear of giving anything away) which are going to be recovered now and again and again. Watson gets around this by adding a certain fact, or possible fiction, to these scenarios which only add to the doubts and questions in our minds. It’s the uncertainty that is the only certainty in this novel.
‘Before I Go To Sleep’ is a very clever book. It takes a relatively simple, and equally possible, scenario and flips it on its head. In fact it’s the very domestic and almost mundane ordinariness of the books setting which makes it so unnerving. The fact Watson does this, on the whole, in one house between three characters is truly impressive. It’s an original, fast paced, gripping and rather high concept novel. I am wondering just what on earth, Watson is going to follow this up with… and how? 9/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
Who else has read ‘Before I Go To Sleep’? Which books have you read on the recommendation of your favourite authors? What was the last thriller you read that almost turned the genre on its head?