Before I Go To Sleep – SJ Watson

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?


Filed under Books of 2011, Doubleday Publishers, Review, SJ Watson

34 responses to “Before I Go To Sleep – SJ Watson

  1. Louise

    I’m reading this book right now – am about half way through and am captivated. It was also given to me as a recommendation from one of my favourite authors, Emily Barr!

    • I think a lot of authors are really recommending this book and I always think that is a good sign, unless they are sending you its way as they want you to carry on thinking they are amazing writers and the one they have recommended isnt quite as good. This is not one of those books of course.

  2. I’ve not read this one, but your review certainly has me sold on it. It sounds a lot like Momento. Does it avoid becoming trapped by this comparison? I also sounds like an excellent escapist read for the summer.

    • I haven’t seen Memento so I can’t compare the two, sorry CB. I will say yes its the perfect summer escapist read though, in fact it was just chosen as a Book at Beachtime here on Radio 4 extra.

  3. gaskella

    This is high up on my pile Simon – and I will definitely try to read it sooner rather than later given your review. Incidentally, I’m reading the new Sophie Hannah at the moment. Only a few chapters in, but it’s beginning to get gripping, and she does neurotic women so well!

    • I really think you will like this one Annabel. I wasnt so hooked I had to read it in one go, but the concept, the delivery, its all brilliant.

      I met Sophie at the weekend, she is lovely and I think *fingers crossed* she is doing Bookmarked in September, how exciting is that.

  4. Louise

    I absolutely loved this, i managed to get asigned copy too 🙂

  5. Haven’t read it, but the last thriller I enjoyed was Transgressions, by Sarah Dunant 🙂

  6. Eva

    Ohhh, I do love unreliable narrators! I was confusing this author w SJ Bolton, lol.

    • Yes I think a lot of people have made that confusion, its kind of natural though, very similar in a few ways. I think if you like crime that plays with your head and with the ordinary then you would love this Eva!

  7. Amy

    This book sounds fascinating as its told from the viewpoint of the amnesia victim. So clever and interesting!. Your review is the first I’ve heard about this book.. I haven’t read a good pyschological thriller in quite a while but I enjoy them!

    • Whatis brilliant about this book, well I thought so, was the fact that Watson uses amnesia to make the everyday things in life fearful, dark and untrustworthy. I thought it was a really original way of writing a thriller.

  8. It’s really great to see a positive review from you about this one Simon – I have been looking at it for a while now trying to decide if I wanted to read it or not and I think I will now give it a go.

    • I liked this a lot Karen and think anyone who likes a well written thriller would feel the same. Its also very different, its hardly any characters and can be a little repetitive yet its addictive.

  9. kay

    I just finished reading this one yesterday and it was just so captivating, I couldn’t let it go. I thought the amnesia iwas a very interesting twist on the usual suspense story, and I loved the pace.

    • I thought the pace was brilliant too Kay, I did worry that with the subject of amnesia this would be a very boring book, same issues repeated etc,a nd it wasn’t at all. I really, really liked it. One of my favourite thrillers of the year.

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  11. Mark Underwood

    Incredibly unrealistic plot devices and very clunky dialogue apart, it kept me turning the pages I suppose. Another novel which is being promoted way over its worth at the mo.’ I think you were being very generous in awarding it 9/10, Simon.

    • Really Mark? I think its interesting you think that. This, for a thriller, ticked all of the boxes and more for me. I was expecting something good, but also something repetative and the latter wasnt true at all. I loved how suburbia became so claustrophobic and cloying, I thought it was great.

      I think fiction tends to be rather unrealistic on occasion, but I do think (and I was discussing this earlier today when I was interviewing Val McDermid – a crime legend) that if people pick up a crime novel they should know they need to suspend belief.

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