Our memories define us and connect us emotionally to our friends and loved ones. They form the basis for our past and present, but memory can be a tricky thing.
S.J. Watson’s debut novel, “Before I Go to Sleep,” is a psychological thriller that centers on a middle-aged woman in London. Christine Lucas suffers a traumatic brain injury that leaves her unable to retain long-term memories for more than 24 hours. Each day, Christine’s memories of her life are wiped clean. She awakens in bed next to a man who claims he is her husband, but she has no memory of him or her own life. Each day, her husband, Ben, must re-orient Christine to who she is and the life they have shared. He posts photos in the bathroom and writes helpful messages on a white board.
Christine struggles each day to piece together her life. With the help of a neuropsychologist, Doctor Ed Nash, who mysteriously contacts her, she begins to write in a journal each day. Dr. Nash tells her to read the journal each day to remember key facts about her life. After a time, she discovers her husband is withholding important facts about her life from her. She learns she published a novel and she bore a son, information her husband has withheld from her. She begins not to trust her husband.
The journal is a clever device that allows Watson to slowly unfold a complex, multi-layered plot and parse out to the reader the puzzle pieces of Christine’s life. When the journal suddenly ends seven days short of the point where the story begins, Christine and the reader are left to wonder what happened during that time.
The pacing of the story is one of its strengths. It starts slowly as Watson brings the reader into Christine’s frighteningly confusing head. As the story progresses, the tension and suspense build and the reader begins to doubt those who claim to love Christine. At one point, the reader is left to wonder who can be trusted. Even the saintly Dr. Nash, who is painted as a model of altruism, becomes suspect in the reader’s mind. Is he working for Ben? Why is Ben lying to Christine about their life together?
One of the most intriguing aspects of this novel is Christine’s internal struggle. At one point, her only desire is to feel normal. “To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next.” She thinks about growing old with no memories to hold onto, no accumulated wisdom to pass along. “What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?”
At another point later on, Christine feels she is going mad. “I wish I knew one thing for certain. One single thing that I have not had to be told, about which I do not need to be reminded.”
After reading her journal one day, she reflects on the fragile state of a life without clear memories. “My life, I thought, is built on quicksand. It shifts from one day to the next…I am desperate for solid ground…” And that is the point here. Our memories, though sometimes faulty and self-serving, define who we are and how we relate to the people around us.
Altered memory can serve as a cheap plot device or an intriguing technique for building suspense, most notably in movies like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the more recent Inception. It takes skill for a writer to use this device effectively. Watson draws on his experience as an audiologist for the National Health Service in Great Britain to create a chilling scenario. Watson, who lives in London, wrote the novel after he was accepted into the first Faber Academy Writing a Novel course.