Tue
Sep 2 2014 1:00pm

Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson

“The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”

Those are the terrified words of Christine upon waking at the beginning of the psychological thriller, Before I Go to Sleep. To complicate matters there’s an unknown male lying next to her and Christine’s immediate thought is she has had an illicit affair with a married man, so she immediately moves to the bathroom to collect her wits and discreetly leave. But the man named Ben is used to her dilemma because he is her husband, he says, and they have been married for twenty-two years, and that Christine who has anterograde amnesia experiences such horrors when she wakes up each and every new day.

Ben explains to her that she’d had “a bad accident,” suffering severe brain injuries when she was 29 years old. Most of the time she sees herself as a young adult but occasionally regresses to being a child living with her mom and dad. She is able to retain information during the waking hours but when she goes to sleep most of it goes away. Christine and Ben live in North London where he takes care of them financially and leaves her on her own when he heads out for work. He writes messages on an eraser board with questions like “laundry? walk? (take phone!) tv?” to help her guide through the day. Before he leaves, he patiently explains everything Christine will need for the day as well as giving her a cell phone that looks (due to technological advances since her mishap) like a kid’s toy to her. Ben promises to call and departs for work. A picture is quickly painted of a loving husband who has stuck to his vow of ’til death do us part. His presence is soothing and calibrates Christine’s jittered nerves.

Enter into this ill-fated mix a doctor by the name of Nash who seems to be treating Christine without Ben’s knowledge. He calls Christine to tell her where a notebook is hidden from her husband and encourages her to read it which begins her deeper understanding of where she’s really at each day. She meets Nash for a secret rendezvous where he reveals that Ben had given up any hope on making significant progress and had removed Christine from additional care. Nash says that Christine had, on her own accord, decided to continue therapy and keep this information from Ben. Nash encourages her by saying they are making small but vital improvement. After the doctor drops Christine back at her house, she continues leafing through her secret journal:

According to Ben, according to the doctor I met this afternoon, tonight, as I sleep, my mind will erase everything I know today. Everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I am still a child. Thinking I still have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me.

Just imagine, for a moment, the prospect of beginning and ending each day in such fear-provoking uncertainty. Mr. Watson vividly makes Christine’s painstaking quest for the truth seem unequivocally plausible in just a few pages and manages to swing the pendulum back and forth from worrying for Christine making an appointment with this mysterious doctor to feeling absolute dread as she later reads in her own handwriting, “Don’t Trust Ben!” As a reader we are pulled into the unfolding drama of will she or won’t she remember and who is playing her. It’s an addictive hook that Mr. Watson uses for all its worth. Since the narrative is set up like we are reading her most intimate thoughts, we also have that curious, mischievous feeling of perusing someone’s diary, but like all snoops worth their salt, we can’t help ourselves and read along to the rewarding end.

In the author’s note, Mr. Watson mentions the names of a couple of amnesiac patients who had inspired his novel. Though film goers may recognize similar elements from movies like Memento (2000), The Bourne Identity (2002) and the humorous 50 First Dates (2004), Mr. Watson has put his own horrifying stamp on this plot, and the material is fresh and convincing made all the more remarkable since this is the author’s debut novel. The New York Times summed it up by saying that the writer was an “out-of-nowhere literary sensation.” One only hopes there are more sharp arrows in his quiver.

Before I Go to Sleep has now been made into a movie directed by Rowan Jofféand starring Nicole Kidman as Christine, Colin Firth as Ben, and Mark Strong as Dr. Nash. I can’t think of a better choice to play Christine after recalling Ms. Kidman’s role as the tortured mother seeking a different kind of truth in 2001’s The Others.


Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent anthology collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories.

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7 comments
1. Mates
This sounds fantastic, I would love to read the book first but will most likely see the movie. Love Nicole Kidman.
David Cranmer
2. DavidCranmer
The book is well worth the time, Mates. Yeah, I like Nicole K. She's had a good run of quality films.
Brian Greene
3. BrianGreene
Fantastic review, David. I'm intrigued to read the book now.
MaryC
4. maryc
Loved the book - looking forward to seeing the film.
David Cranmer
5. DavidCranmer
Thanks, Brian! And I'm positive you will enjoy this one.
marye, I'm hoping Hollywood does it justice. I definitely think they have the right actress for Christine.

6. AngelaDyrcz
This is one of the best books I have read in a while and I can't wait for more from this author. I am really excited to see the movie as well!
David Cranmer
7. DavidCranmer
AngelaDyrcz, I appreciate the amount of research that went into this book and I can only imagine that Watson is a perfectionist and it might be awhile before the next one. I just did a quick search online and didn't see any new material on the horizon.
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