Review: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Review written by Jess Peacock

It is difficult to review a work where the critical reception is unanimous and widespread. Whether positive or negative, it can be far too easy to allow ones opinion to be influenced by the overwhelming consensus floating around the cloud. Or worse, to be the one to serve as the lone contrarian simply because the entirety of the herd is moving in a singular, lock step, direction.

Such is the case with S.J. Watson’s inaugural novel Before I Go to Sleep, widely praised by critics and acquired for film adaptation by Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free. Quite literally the flavor of the month for June 2011, Before I Go to Sleep serves as an adequate novel and a fast read. Unfortunately, that is about it.

The novel concerns Christine, a middle-aged woman afflicted with a form of amnesia that prevents her from forming new memories. When she awakens each morning, the previous days memories are erased, leaving her in a perpetual state of emotional and societal limbo, with only her husband Ben around each morning to help sort out her bewilderment. While Christopher Nolan’s Memento (based on his brother Jonathon’s short story) similarly tread this path cinematically ten years previous, Watson initially does an excellent job of branching off in a unique direction, exploring the natural human responses of confusion, fear, anger and claustrophobia that this affliction would necessarily produce in someone such as Christine.

Unfortunately, the author quickly steers the novel into standard whodunit territory. At the behest of her doctor, Christine begins a journal as a way to not only remember what is happening in her life, but also as a potential agent of healing for her fractured psyche. Due to her condition, Christine needs to read her journal each new day, and so it is with great shock that she discovers, written in her own handwriting, the words Don’t trust Ben scribbled on the front page. While the novel does not necessarily fall apart at this point (the note is quickly revealed at the end of chapter one), it enters the blasé world of meh, bowing to standard Hitchcockian tropes such as the unreliable narrator, unreliable supporting cast, unreliable memories, and, well, just about unreliable everything.

Without venturing too deeply into spoiler territory, Christine’s treatments from her doctor pry open memories of a life that fail to connect with her current surroundings. And her growing paranoia, while a tool of Watson’s to keep the reader off balance, proves to be justified. While this avenue provides the stimulus for what will undoubtedly be an exciting Hollywood thriller, the true psychological horrors of Christine’s affliction are touched on only briefly, a terror that, if handled correctly, might penetrate the reader at a far deeper level than mere conspiracy theories. Who are we without our memories? What do we believe about others and ourselves simply because we are conditioned to? Without a firm foundation of identity how might the slightest stimuli (external or internal) alter our daily paths? And, without sounding overly trite, what defines reality?

In addition, Before I Go to Sleep suffers from several hard to overcome leaps of logic, as well as an overly rushed climax that leaves the reader backtracking several pages in order to fully understand where all the players fit on the game board. While Watson has produced an interesting first novel, it unfortunately fails to live up to the manufactured positive hype generated over the last several months. Unreliable in tone and depth, perhaps his next novel will reveal a consistent voice that is able to avoid the lure of easy revelations and convenient conclusions.