Book review: Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson

Before I go to Sleep
by S J Watson
Transworld (Doubleday), 2011.

As I am the last person in the UK, possibly the world, to read this book, I shall summarise the plot very briefly as I am sure everyone is familiar with it. A woman in her mid-40s, Christine, wakes up in bed one morning next to her husband in a nice north London house, but cannot remember anything about who she is or what she is doing there. She thinks she is in her 20s. The husband, Ben, explains to her that she has amnesia caused by a car crash, and has been in this state for more than 20 years. Each day is as if she has never been born, and all must be learned anew.

From this interesting premise the author develops Christine’s character (the book is entirely told from her point of view). She’s a determined woman who, after Ben leaves for work in the morning leaving helpful notes on the whiteboard in the kitchen (“wash windows”, etc), discovers a note in her handbag. This leads her to a rendezvous with Dr Nash, who tells her that at his encouragement she has been writing a journal of each day for the past two weeks (oddly, for the past 20 years of in-patient treatment, she has not been encouraged to do this). The main part of the book is Christine’s journal (written like a novel, but she is, we learn, a novelist), in which she writes down everything significant that she learns each day, in the hope that she’ll gradually re-learn her past. Nash, like no doctor I’ve ever known, helpfully phones Christine each morning to tell her about the journal and where it is, and is always available whenever she phones him, popping over to meet her in cafes, for example.

Ben is a shadowy character and seems pretty suspicious right from the start, for example he goes out to work each day leaving Christine alone with no carer or other company, and does not leave his work address on the whiteboard. By reading her secret journal each day, Christine learns that Ben keeps much from her, for example the existence of their son Adam, but there are always good reasons for Ben’s reticence. Via her meetings with Nash, which Ben does not know about (Christine leaves notes to herself to tell her not to tell Ben about the journal or Nash), Christine retraces the steps of her past life and hopes gradually to remember it. (She does, however, know some things instinctively, such as how to do the laundry even though she has not seen a washing machine for 20 years, or to be critical of her clothes because they seem suitable for an “older woman”.)

The last part of the book brings us back to the present, after the previous two weeks of journal entries. Christine feels that quite a bit of her memory has returned and has agreed to go away for the weekend with Ben, as she realises she loves him and appreciates his devotion over the years of her mental absence. Of course, all is not what it seems, and there is a violent climax to the story, with an over-hasty aftermath of explanation.

It’s a challenge to sum up this book. It would be very hard for it to live up to its reputation, and indeed it does not. There are so many clunky details about Christine’s memory and living arrangements that one simply has to ignore them. Christine lives in a sort of parallel Britain. Friends and family behave in inexplicable ways, not to mention the various health professionals involved (or, even more bizarrely, not involved) in the narrative. Christine as a character is admirably determined in the present day if not in her past life, but I did not find her realistic in her emotional reactions to some of the information or people she discovers, or thinks she’s discovered. Ben and Nash are both very flat characters. The author does not pursue the neuroscientific line that is sketched out a little, which might have added some interest to the plot. If this book had not been so heavily promoted and hyped, I’d put it down to a readable but minor suspense novel of the “women’s romantic fiction” variety. Why it has been praised so much (many famous authors admire the book, according to quotations on the cover), and why it has been so much more popular than what I consider to be much better suspense books published last year, I am at a loss to know – unless it is the double-whammy effect of a chick-lit/crime-fiction crossover readership! (If you’ve aleady read the book, or don’t mind plot spoilers, this Amazon review sums up briefly why the book just does not work.)

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of Before I go to Sleep: The Guardian, The Independent (refreshingly down to earth and nice dig at one blurbist!), The Book Whisperer, It’s a Crime!, Euro Crime (Lizzie Hayes), Reactions to Reading, and many others.

Author website.

38 thoughts on “Book review: Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson

  1. At least you only got it from the library🙂 I too am astonished at the praise and awards heaped upon this particular book that, to me, has nothing that really stands out at all and is bad for all the reasons you give. But clearly I am clueless when it comes to the world of popularity and thus it will ever be

    • I noticed that one of the big UK newspapers picked up on your “how did she know how to charge her phone” point, in her review, Bernadette – unattributed (so perhaps the same point occurred to her independently😉 ).

  2. I’ve not read this Maxine so you’re not the last one to read this.I quite fancy it but I’m in no rush, especially after reading your review!

    • A much better suspense novel published last year, and along some (but not all) similar lines, is Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes, Sarah. (about same length and “reading level”). It was a “sleeper hit” (just check those Amazon reviews). A much better depiction of the mad/or not? woman theme.

  3. I haven’t read this book either, but if I do — and it’s a big if, I’ll get it from the library.
    It’s always obvious with these plots that things are not what they seem when a woman has “amnesia.” It’s a bit like Ingrid Bergman’s character in Gaslight, whose husband, played by Charles Boyer, tells her she’s mad, and — and, surprise to the viewer — he has ulterior motives.
    So I may not read this at all and I’m in no rush after reading this review and other good analyses.
    And, how may I ask can one forget how to do the laundry? I wish I could!

    • Oh, I remember Gaslight – though I saw the play not the film. Great plot, much copied since😉
      On my “laundry” comment, I meant that in 20 years washing machine design changed a lot, but she seemed to have no problems in “putting on a load of laundry” compared with having to work out other things- I think she would at least have had to work out how to use the machine?

      • In fact dare I make a sexist comment and suggest that this was one of the giveaways that the book was written by a man – a species not renowned for deep laundry knowledge? Probably unfair, he probably does it all every week and I have exposed my awful prejudices.

  4. Maxine – I’m always a bit wary of books that get that much praise and hype. Very rarely do they live up to the hype. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I deliberately haven’t gone in search of this one. And after reading your review, I don’t know that I will. The premise seems interesting enough, but I don’t like that “improbability factor” and of course, I prefer fleshed-out characters…

  5. All you disbelief justifiable Maxine. I come from the pretext that I hardly read anything about a diary of one who is losing her mind or lost her memory, so the format was refreshing but the writing and plotting I agree it is amateurish (I’m going to be shot for saying this!).

    • Not on this blog, JoV, or Bernadette’s! I do recommend a glance at that Amazon link I provide in the post, most telling (& nice discussion of the review).

  6. I passed on this when I heard the plot was somewhat similar to a movie called, Memento. I read a sample and it just didn’t grab me (almost bought it because I think Dennis Lehane praised it)

  7. Slightly sheepishly, I’m going to confess that I loved this book🙂. It was a combination for me of the clever premise and the novel’s page-turner qualities: I devoured it very quickly and had a lot of fun reading it. The underlying theme of the role memory plays in identity formation was a meaty one, and even though I could see that some bits of the plot were a bit far-fetched, I didn’t mind, because the reading experience made me want to suspend belief.

    Here’s hoping that my critical integrity is not now shot to smithereens!!! *holds breath*

    • I’m so glad you wrote that, Mrs Pea. A lot of readers agree with you. Even though I didn’t like it all that much, it has won a major award, is top of best seller lists, has been selected for the two most prestigious UK reading promotions, has many positive reviews on Amazon. I would be a very blinkered reviewer, and person, if I did not acknowledge that I am in a minority and that many more people loved this book than did not. And, in its favour, there is no grim kidnapping/assault scenes, no kidnapping children and sending ghastly pictures of what the person is doing to them, and other recent “best selling” horrors.

      Anyway, this is a friendly blog where all views are more than welcome.

  8. I’m here to join the smallish “I rather hated this book” club. So surprised at how big it became. It’s a good thing I’m not a betting woman as I wouldn’t have placed bets on this becoming a Big Thing. (Though I’m glad you enjoyed it Mr.s P.)

  9. Great discussion! Now I don’t know quite what to do, but will read it if I trip over it
    in the library, but won’t search for it and certainly won’t buy it.
    On how to do laundry, I meant “if only I could forget how to do laundry!”

    • Oh, me too, Kathy, wouldn’t that be nice?! (Especially as it is the weekend tomorrow morning – highlight activity, laundry ;-( )

  10. Thanks for this review, Maxine. I haven’t read the book myself, but I was wary of all the praise heaped on it. Surely the book couldn’t be that good? Alas, it sounds like it isn’t…

  11. I have to confess that I loved this book. I read it last year on the recommendation of a friend and before I’d read any reviews of it. I loved the idea of the story and just had to keep reading to find out how it ended – I think i read it in a weekend! I guess with all novels there’s a element of having to ‘suspend belief’ and every person will be different in what they like and what they don’t. For me it was a new take on the type of story told in films like Memento and 50 First Dates.

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    • Actually I do link to that Inde review in my post, CFR, its comment about Tess Gerritsen is priceless! (Sorry, link is in a bit of an obscure place, right at the bottom, easy to miss.)

      • No Maxine, this is a new one in the Indie, from a different reviewer which I found last night. It’s published 22 Jan, probably to coincide with the PB.

        And yes, the comment on Tess Gerritsen’s blurb in last year’s is priceless.

  13. I finished this book this week and I’m torn. It was so gripping I literally couldn’t put it down, but as I was reading it I was aware of the plot holes. Since finishing it these have grown and I have realised just how riduculous some aspects of this book are. The question is – does it matter? I was thouroughly entertained. I think this is one of those books I was talking about when I wrote my post about bad books being good – there is so much to discuss with this book. It has clearly captured the hearts of the UK public and I think that might be partly due to the fact it is so easy to discuss.

    • Very well put, Jackie – I too wanted to rush on to the next bit constantly, as I was reading it, even as things jarred or I kept thinking of questions that were not answered. The subject, that of living with someone of whom you have no knowledge/memory, is as you say something that has tapped into mass insecurity in a big way!

  14. I agree 100% with your comments re “Before I Sleep”. In the US, it was heavily promo’d as THE book of the summer; this from February onward. Not only was I disappointed in the Watson book, and not at all entertained, but I felt that it obscured a more significant debut of another Brit writer, Rosamund Lupton (“Sister”). Lupton’s is a superior book but it got lost in the excitement of “Before….” and relatively little attention was paid to it at introduction. Fortunately, word of mouth and some good early reviews gradually built a very large audience for it, “Sister” subsequently earned a number of richly deserved awards but I cringe every time I see a nomination for “Before” but not “Sister”. Will be interesting to follow these two careers.

    Ken

    • I liked Sister – the crime plot was a bit weak but I loved the portrait of the relationship between the sisters, and the portrait of the sister & mother in the aftermath. However, I really did not like her next, Afterwards, in fact I could not finish it but skimmed the second half.

      In the UK, a couple of suspense novels that came out at about the same time as BIGTS that were a great deal better, in my view, are Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes and Why Don’t You Come For Me by Diane Janes. (I read them in very cheap Kindle editions, not sure if that still holds. They are both in print also.)

      Reviews of all these books (except Afterwards) are on Petrona.

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  16. Though I enjoyed this book ‘Before I go to sleep’ had an unsatisfactory ending, almost as if it was rushed in the writing. I had envisaged a better conclusion.Also I agree that certain elements didn’t ring true ..why would the ‘brief fling’ be intent on desperately being with the ‘heroine’ after a period of twenty years and why had she never been encouraged to keep a diary before?

  17. A very interesting and well-argued review. I’ve just read the book and felt very positive about it, but the criticisms you make of the plausibility of some of the elements of the story-line are entirely fair. I guess, as with all reactions to books (and much else!), it comes down to a personal and subjective judgment as to how easy we find it to suspend disbelief when faced with a particular narrative.

  18. I actually finished this book in one sitting yesterday. I completely agree that many events are not plausible. I remember one scene where she decides to sleep in the spare room one night to continue writing in her journal and magically gets it out of the main bedroom’s closest the next morning even though she never put it back?!? It was very entertaining though. Can you give me some recommendations to suspense/thriller novels, as I’m new to the genre?! Thanks!

    • hi Beth, thanks for the comment. My favourite suspense novelist is Karin Altvegen, eg Missing (a Swedish author). A recent English suspense novel in a not dissimilar vein to BeforeIGTS but better, in my view, is Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes. You could also perhaps try Blacklands by Belinda Bauer. Like BeforeIGTS, Into The Darkest Corner and Blacklands are both debut novels.

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