Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson

23 April 2012
Part 1 and Part 2, to 14 November
This is highly readable. S J Watson has us guessing at first: a woman in her 20s wakes to find herself in the body of someone twenty years older, and I immediately thought of a story by H G Wells. ‘The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham’ is narrated by a young man who has recently found himself inside the body of an old man and is horror-struck in exactly the same way as Watson’s own first-person narrator…. But this turns out to be author 1, reader nil: it isn’t that kind of story at all, but one that reminded me instead of the Christopher Nolan film Memento. (Sorry to keep doing this, but I realise that having been sent in the wrong direction once, I was looking for familiar landmarks.) Christine, as she turns out to be called, is suffering from the same kind of amnesia as Guy Pearce in that movie: following a terrible head injury, she can only remember new experiences for the space of a single day. She is about twenty years older than she thought when she woke up, and all the intervening years are a blank.

What’s not to enjoy about an idea like this? In amongst the mystery plot, questions are bound to be raised about the nature of identity, the reliability of memories that might not be real even if they seem vivid… and so on. We can’t help but try to imagine what it would be like to wake up next to a stranger in a bedroom that is totally unfamiliar, and have to find out everything about ourselves – good and bad – every single day. It’s the exact opposite of Groundhog Day: instead of repeat showings of the same day leading to a new understanding, new days erase everything this woman ever knew.

Watson has a clever way of avoiding a day-by-day repeat of the first day. A tame neuropsychologist phones her on a mobile phone she’s only just coming to terms with, assures her that they really have met before… etc. This is Dr Nash, and soon he’s giving back to her the journal that he tells her she’s been keeping for some weeks – she doesn’t believe it at first, obviously – and Part 2 is the journal. For a reason that might or might not be innocent – on the first page of the journal Christine has warned herself not to trust Ben, her husband – the neurologist has told her to keep the journal a secret, to hide it every night before she goes to sleep. He will phone her each day to tell her where to look for it. The innocent explanation is that Ben has become disaffected with previous attempts to help Christine, but… but, well, we don’t know, do we?

Slowly, as she re-reads the journal – Dr Nash has told her he’s read ‘most of it’ – we live through her experience of the past few weeks. The journal, a standby for novelists for centuries, turns out to be one of Watson’s best ideas: not only does it allow him to avoid the repetition of the endless new beginnings; it becomes part of Christine’s perception of her own mental state. Usually, as she reads previous entries each morning, she does not remember having written. But sometimes reading about a memory that seems new – like the one of a best friend at a party, sparked off on Parliament Hill through a combination of fireworks and something that Ben says – consolidates it on subsequent days.

Through the fractured memories and this piecemeal fractured narrative, a life begins to emerge. It seems ordinary enough, but… novelists have a habit of giving their characters more interesting lives than those of their readers. Ben is a teacher, and he tells her that she was working as a secretary following her PhD…. He’s hidden the fact that she was a published novelist (oh, that’ll be like Emma in David Nicholls’ One Day). And, indirectly, this leads to a new memory: she remembers being pregnant, remembers – hang on a minute – a son, called… Adam. And so on. After she’s doubted her own memory about both the novel and the son, it turns out that she’s right about both. Ben has probably kept the literary success a secret because, well, what good would it do every day to have to confront her own limitations now compared to what she once was? And the same goes for Adam: he was killed last year in Afghanistan (oh, that’ll be like the husband of the main character in Pat Barker’s Double Vision).

So, as things stand about a third of the way through the novel, we’re no more certain of what’s going on than Christine is. Those things that Ben doesn’t tell her… that’s all right, isn’t it? He can’t make her go through the grief of Adam’s death every day, can he (for his own sake as much as for hers)? And the details of the fire that led to the loss of most of the photos: he’s protecting her, isn’t he, from the knowledge that she caused it? And the hit-and-run accident that caused her head injury, that’s kosher, isn’t it? Reader, we just don’t know, which is exactly how Watson wants it to be.

24 April
Part 2, continued: to 20 November
When I first started reading this novel, I remember thinking that it was probably going to be neat and tidy. S J Watson, debut novelist, is going to be careful not to waste a good idea: he’ll keep it moving, keep it interesting and, I guess, tie things up satisfactorily by the end. (Sometimes I find myself making a mental note about the arrival of the next little nudge to the plot: I’m finding it difficult not to read this novel as a carefully produced artefact. Maybe I’ll get back to you about that.) Not much new has happened. Or a lot has happened but, with one exception, not much of it is unexpected.

We’ve just found out about the unexpected thing. Ben, who has been the tirelessly and selflessly loving husband throughout the first half of the novel and more, had divorced Christine some time after the event that caused her amnesia. And, somehow connected with this, the best friend that she remembers – the one he’s told her has moved to New Zealand – made efforts to keep in touch that he hasn’t told her about. When Christine was in hospital this friend, Claire, visited almost as much as he did, and when she moved back to live with Ben, Claire sent him her telephone number. Why is he keeping her under wraps? Why did he pretend to Christine after she has that memory of her early in the novel that she never had a best friend at all?

This middle section is turning into the Don’t Trust Ben diaries. It seems that each day she’s had to convince herself, sometimes with Dr Nash’s help, that he’s almost certainly telling her untruths for both their sakes. This isn’t new and sometimes, despite Watson’s best efforts, it can become repetitive. But as Christine writes entries in her journal and reads them each day, her suspicions are becoming stronger. That ‘accident’ turns out to have been an assault, which she remembers in fragments, by a man whose face she just can’t remember. It took place in a hotel room in Brighton, and Christine assumes she was having an affair – she remembers the champagne and flowers – with a man who almost murdered her. But, because it was always going to turn into that sort of plot, Watson is sowing seeds of doubt. Perhaps the traumatic memory she’s hiding from herself is that her would-be murderer is Ben. On the evening of the day when she and Dr Nash have agreed to tell Ben that she has been seeing him and writing a journal, he has just telephoned her not to. This is when he tells her about the divorce and the missing best friend, and it’s as far as I’ve read.

As I’ve suggested, it’s carefully paced. As I’ve also suggested, it sometimes feels a little over-stretched. The things that Christine writes don’t read like diary entries. They read like a novel. Sure, Christine is supposed to be a published writer… but come on. Watson must have made a decision early on that he wasn’t going to try to reproduce the frantic scribblings of a snatched hour or two. (The unfeasible amounts of writing, thousands of words per diary entry, reminded me of the nocturnal diaries in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. In that novel, as in this one, you just have to suspend your disbelief.) And her fragments of memory don’t feel like that’s what they are. If they aren’t being like clips from movies, they’re being far more vivid and pin-sharp than any memories this reader has ever had. I don’t believe them any more than I believe Christine’s novelistic descriptions of her days.

What else? There are fairly regular references to sexual feelings, with Christine falling for her doctor and, if it isn’t a red herring, mixing his name up with that of the man who attacked her; there are Christine’s musings on whether there’s any point to what she and Dr Nash are attempting to do, when she might never regain her memory; there are those existential questions of identity I mentioned at the beginning, her feeling that a life without the sense of self brought about by layers of memory is worse than death. And so on. (There’s even a reference to those possibly unreliable memories: the mind can fill in gaps with ‘confabulations’ that have no basis in truth.)

Otherwise, the book has become a thriller now, and… I’m wondering where Watson will take it next. Ben as control-freak would-be murderer, covering his tracks and enjoying the power he has over the woman who used to be his wife? Seems unlikely – but how would I know? And are there further revelations to come? I’ve been wondering about a lesbian thing with Claire – I did as soon as that first memory emerged – but I don’t really believe that either.

25 April
21-23 November: to the end of Part 2
How disappointing. Christine finds answers to all her questions except one – I’ll come back to that – and none of them is as interesting as the ones I’d been hoping for. After at least another two long days of banging on about the lies that Ben has been telling her, Christine finds out that, yes, he really is devotedly in love with her sorry carcase and is only trying to protect her from information she would find too upsetting to bear. After contacting Claire she finds out not that they were gay lovers – was I really the only one to suspect it? – but that, yes, she and Ben did have a sad little guilt-ridden fling when Christine was at her worst. Ben did divorce her, but mainly for their son’s sake – and only when it looked as though she would never recover. (We’d found out in earlier entries how far out of it she was, spending years in hospital, not knowing who she was for more than a few minutes at a time and subject to fits of howling and erratic behaviour.)

If it all sounds desperately sentimental… that’s how I found it. The final day, in which she has met Claire and her son with ADHD, provides her not only with a model of how it is possible to love someone apparently beyond our help but also testimony from a friend who is as devoted as Ben. And having read her journal each day, she finds that she is beginning to wake up with tiny ghosts of memories, like the fact that she really is older than she thinks, that she was once a mother…. Most of he thriller elements of earlier entries scatter in the winds, and Christine, though almost a tabula rasa on each morning, decides that she really does love the man she has just discovered to be her husband, will learn to love him if necessary every new day. Pass me the sick-bucket.

However. There’s still nearly a quarter of the novel yet to go as we – and Christine – reach the end of her journal. She’s decided to tell Ben all about writing it, is going to lend it to Dr Nash…. In other words, we’ve almost caught up with the first disorientating day that opens the novel. Where can it go from here? Further (rather far-fetched) improvements in her memory? The journal, or a pared-down version of it, providing enough information for her to cobble together a past for herself each day?

And what about the thriller plot? Watson has been slowly cranking it up again: he hasn’t let us forget about that attack in Brighton, even though Christine says she can accept not knowing who it was who ‘took away her life’. My guess is – and, as you know, I’m usually wrong – that there’ll be enough fragments for them to bring the nasty man to justice. And I wonder if he really will be called Ed, the name he shares with Dr Nash – the half-remembered name she thought must have proven that she was subconsciously in love with her therapist. Or has Watson been pulling the wool over our eyes with Ben’s devotion? Might he have got worried when she started to remember things a few years ago, decided that he needed to start editing her memories before she remembers who attacked her? (I’ve just remembered that she’d told Claire that her affair – she was right about that – had finished some weeks before the attack. So who else but her husband would be taking her to Brighton?) I bet there’ll be some more memories of the attack, vividly evoked… and, finally, the spool of film will run on beyond where it usually cuts off, and she’ll see a face. You just watch.

27 April
To the end
I’d forgotten that at the beginning of the day, Ben had told Christine they were going away that evening. And later, as she plays life-or-death mind games with her former attacker in the same Brighton hotel room – I was right about that, at least – Christine decides that there will be no happy ending for her. Maybe it’s a pity that Watson has other ideas: by the time we reach the end, all the people she has ever loved are gathered around her to tell her that whatever happens to her memory tomorrow, they’re gonna help her make it through….

Of course, I’d missed the clues about who the would-be killer is, even though I’d more or less decided it was Ben. Y’see, Ben isn’t Ben, but Mike. Christine has one of her pin-sharp, high-res memory playbacks, and it includes not only his face but also his name. So the man who was visiting her in the convalescent home – not early on, but near the end – was lying about who he was: he was only pretending to be her husband but, what with the high turnover of staff at the place, it was easy for him to fool everyone, then spirit her away to his house. Really, he’s the ex-lover, the one Christine decided to end it with after a few weeks – the one she remembered naked in the kitchen of the house she visited with Dr Nash, and therefore knew he really was Ben – and he never got over her. The end.

Actually, there really isn’t a lot more to say. He gets her to a room at the top of a rather seedy guest-house before she realises that the seaside place – the one with the pier and domed pavilion – is Brighton. But he doesn’t want to kill her, he wants her to remember how it used to be between them. Unfortunately for him, she already has, right down to the tiles on the bathroom floor where he tried to drown her.

What’s a writer to do? How about, get him to start burning the journal – he wants her, just as we’ve always guessed, to be new every morning for him – and for her to knock over the flaming bin, setting the room alight? How about the fire leaving her unscathed except for a broken bone but, in a way that is never explained, leaving the creepy man dead? How about having Claire arriving in time to be with her in the ambulance, the real Ben arriving in time to talk to her in the hospital, her son, who isn’t dead after all, arriving, Dr Nash on the phone, talking up the possibilities of a partial cure…? Yep, that should do it.

Near the start, I wrote that Watson was going to be careful not to waste a good idea. It turns out I was wrong about that as well.

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