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Book Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Posted by gck Monday, January 9, 2012


Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Genre: Contemporary thriller
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Recommended for: thriller fans, people with interest in amnesia and memory loss

Back-cover summary:
Every day Christine wakes up not knowing where she is. Her memories disappear every time she falls asleep. Her husband, Ben, is a stranger to her, and he's obligated to explain their life together on a daily basis--all the result of a mysterious accident that made Christine an amnesiac. With the encouragement of her doctor, Christine starts a journal to help jog her memory every day. One morning, she opens it and sees that she's written three unexpected and terrifying words: "Don't trust Ben." Suddenly everything her husband has told her falls under suspicion. What kind of accident caused her condition? Who can she trust? Why is Ben lying to her? And, for the reader: Can Christine’s story be trusted? At the heart of S. J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep is the petrifying question: How can anyone function when they can't even trust themselves?

My review:
An old-ish woman has amnesia, and she reads a notebook every day to remember stuff! Ohhh, I can't help but make the comparison, even though this book is really nothing like The Notebook. This sort of dark thriller isn’t the type of thing I would normally pick up, and I’m glad it was our book club pick this month.

Before I Go to Sleep has a gripping and unusual premise. A woman named Christine suffers from a particular form of amnesia where she is able to recall short term memories until she goes to sleep for the night. Each day when she wakes up, she has to piece her world back together, with the help of some long term memories, her husband Ben, and a journal she writes her daily discoveries in.

I love how the book is structured. The first part is a day in Christine's life, waking up and not knowing where she is, going through the realizations she has to do each day, and discovering that she has a journal to read. The second part contains entries from the daily journal, chronicling Christine's non-linear path to remembering her past. The last part is the continuation of the day after she has finished reading her journal.

Christine's situation is quite terrifying, and the reader is drawn into the suspense of all of the things unknown. Once I started reading, I really wanted to know the outcome, but it was long enough of a book that I had to read it in multiple sittings. It's nice that there's enough length to draw a lot of suspense, but I also think a lot of the journal days were filler and could be eliminated. I mean, the following type of scene seemed to play out over and over again:

Christine: I don't trust my husband. I know I should, but I don't.
Someone else: You should. Your husband really loves you!
Christine: I know now that my husband loves me, and I love him, too.

Really, X loves Y (in various combinations) was said so many times in this book that it pretty much lost meaning by the end. The name S.J. Watson is gender ambiguous, but I did check after I finished reading and was unsurprised to discover that it was a man. Christine's character never seemed particularly feminine, and in some instances the writing even sounds markedly masculine.

Still, I guess in this book, it matters less what the people are like and more about the situation and what really happened. It's scary to see how helpless a person can be without memories. Though Christine's type of amnesia may not commonly exist, there are relevant similarities between her feelings and reactions and those of people with dementia and Alzheimer's.


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