Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson

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Spoilers aplenty.

A woman, Christine, wakes up in a strange room with a man she does not recognise, and when she goes into the bathroom and looks in the mirror she finds that she has aged by two decades.  Worse, she cannot remember how she got there, and she sees photographs with her in them on the wall that document a past of which she has no recall.  The man she woke up with says that he is her husband, Ben, and she lost her memory in an accident,   It’s a dreadful situation to be in, and it gets worse when, after Ben has gone to work, she receives a mysterious phone call from a man, Dr Nash, who says he is a doctor who is helping her with her disability, and he tells her that she has been keeping a secret journal.  When she opens it to find out what she has written, having no memory of having even kept it, she sees at the front the words ‘Don’t trust Ben’.

Christine has anterograde amnesia, and fairly severe, but not complete, retrograde amnesia; that is, she cannot transfer new memories from short-term to long-term memory  that survive sleep, and has difficulty recalling any old memories; these only reach consciousness in fragmentary and elusive form.  To all intents and purposes she is living in the present, the memories that she has accrued during the day disappearing by the following morning.  This is the unreliability of memory writ large.  It shows how much we rely on our memory’s continuity as the glue that holds personality together.  The memory limbo Christine finds herself in results in an emotional limbo as well because deep attachments are predicated on memory and cannot be conjured up at a moment’s notice.

Even worse, if you can’t remember your past, whom do you trust when all you have to go on is what they tell you?  As the days progress Christine continues to keep her journal, and in doing so she begins to have flashbacks to what may be memories, or they could be confabulation, her mind making things up to give her a sense of continuity.  The journal’s pages become a repository for these transient insights as well as a record of her daily activities, and in rereading it each day she notes disturbing discrepancies between what she has written and what her husband tells her.  The question is, is he telling her what he thinks is in her best interest, for maintaining her peace of mind, or convenient for him, or is something sinister going on?

This is an enjoyable first novel from S. J. Watson, with a complex structure.  The plausibility factor is very low though.  In fact the twist of the masquerade had occurred to me well before the end (along with several other scenarios, including a Shutter Island-type conspiracy to shock Christine out of her condition – the frequent use of ‘are you OK? by various parties ostensibly unknown to each other seemed to be a clue, rather than an authorial tic) but I had dismissed it as too unlikely to have worked.

The overall plausibility is just one element of its flaws.  Some are minor, words she would not have used, her ease with unfamiliar technology.  Others are more significant.  You wonder how she manages to write such polished prose in her journal when it is supposedly being written in haste and often in fear of discovery (though she is a novelist), how big that notebook is, and how she finds time to reread and absorb it each day on top of everything else that is going on, including coming to terms afresh every morning with her situation.  In real life (if that is a consideration in what is a fantasy) she would be more likely to concentrate on recording the essentials than producing continuous prose complete with chunks of dialogue and description, but that wouldn’t make for an entertaining novel.  The biggest problem is that she is told that there is no organic cause for her amnesia, but such a profound disability cannot be explained by some psychological repression, and it is glib to suggest, as Dr Nash does, that her returning memory might be assisted by her having experienced fresh trauma.

I was puzzled too by the decision to have Mike (the pseudo-Ben) work in a secondary school.  He is pretending to be Ben there as well – through a convoluted route Christine get back in touch with her old friend Claire, Claire becomes suspicious of the man who says he is Ben and rings the school he works at; she asks for him under that name and they know who he is – but you cannot get a job working with children using a false name and false address details.  How would the CRB check work?  It would have been more believable if he had been self-employed, but then the plot hinges on him keeping regular work hours so that Christine can spend a lot of time either out of the house without his knowledge or writing her journal undetected.

It also seems unlikely that Christine would be released from a care home into the custody of someone who simply turns up and says he is her husband, even if she is discharging herself.  With a patient suffering such profound cognitive deficits there would be a process as the medical and social service authorities assured themselves that she would be cared for adequately at home, and her sole caregiver leaving her on her own while going off to work each day might not be considered to constitute having a safe environment for her.  Dr Nash, who is working with her in secret and with no official sanction, serves a purpose in getting her to write her journal, and then, until she begins to remember it herself, telling her where it is each morning, but he proves obtuse in not working out that something is badly wrong with her home situation.

The ending is wrapped up glibly in a ‘what just happened there?’ moment of rushed exposition.  Tip to Christine: if you find yourself in an hotel room with a psychopath in the future, consider throwing a heavy object, like the chair you wield so ineffectually, through the window; that should get someone’s attention.  It’s best not to ask how she survives the fire while tied up yet Mike does not, and how Claire and Adam turn up just in time to go to the hospital with her in the ambulance (would that be allowed?).  As for the volte face of Ben and Adam having effectively abandoned her, necessary for the plot to work as it depends on Christine’s isolation, and Ben now saying how much he loves her and want to be together, it doesn’t ring true.  Christine had not been well served by her family at her time of greatest need.  Ben wanted to get on with his life, and dressed it up as divorce being for her good.  Adam refused to see her because she had had an affair, despite the terrible thing that had happened to her as a result, indicating a lack of compassion.  Even Claire, a supposedly good friend, loses track of her for a lengthy stretch.  Paradoxically it seems like the one who hurt her so badly really was the one who loved and cared for her most.

To answer one of the Reading Group Questions helpfully included, ‘Do you think Christine will remember what happened to her when she wakes up?’, well the novel ends with her going to sleep.  How else could she write down in such detail the conversations tying up the loose ends?  She does, and the amnesia that was so profound in driving the story, having served its purpose, is now no more.  An author’s note refers to the partial inspiration provided by Clive Wearing, of whom his wife talked movingly to Jonathan Miller in a documentary about ‘the Cliveness of Clive’, and by Henry Gutav Molaison, whose name I did not recognise but whose initials I did from my psychology degree: H.M.  It is nice to see him get his name back.  The difference between him and Wearing on one side and Christine on the other is that their amnesias had definite neurological origins, whereas Christine’s is a hysterical conversion disorder.  But whatever the cause of her curious amnesia, the novel should be a reminder of how unreliable memory can be.

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