Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson published in 2011 by Harper Collins

There are tons of gimmicks that authors and film makers use to propel their plots.  In Memento and Shutter Island (two books that Before I go to Sleep are compared too) and even 50 First Dates, starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, use the same gimmick; memory, or lack thereof.  The thing about gimmicks is that I feel if your going to use one that the story en masse relies upon to work then the author should make sure the plot line is on solid ground.

Watsons book, in my estimation fails right at the end, the gimmick doesn’t make sense with what happens at the end.  Think of it like this, if in the movie Hangover II the phone that they recorded all the pictures on where they are able to piece together all the mishaps and figure out what happened; imagine that in act II we saw that phone smashed but we see them looking through it in the end.  The gimmick falls apart.  Not a great example but I”m trying to think of something that works without too much of a spoiler alert (for those who care; I don’t care about spoilers).

Now I feel that Watson fails in terms of one of the  gimmicks he has chosen to use, but I must say the story he tells and how he tells it is quite good.

Our heroine Christine has amnesia.  She wakes daily without any memory of the past twenty or so years.  She wakes distraught most days next to a man who must explain to her that he is her husband, they are very much in love and that she was in a terrible accident leaving her with the inability to create new memories.  When she looks in the mirror she expects to see the twenty some year old woman she remembers but is confronted with a late forties image of herself.  She gets a phone call (on a cell phone which she knows nothing about; one of the several interesting pieces written in by Watson being that Christine had this accident in the mid 80’s prior to laptop computers, flat screen tvs and cell phones) from a man claiming to be a doctor who has been helping her, on the sly from her husband Ben, try to regain her memories.  He relates to her that he has told her, and she has complied, to keep a journal.  Christine finds said journal and begins to read about her life, beginning two (or so) weeks ago; in the front page in large letters – DO NOT TRUST BEN!

So here we have two gimmicks at play; memory (amnesia, diary form narration; and I might as well add unreliable narrator to the mix).  Each diary entry is a building block on the previous entry, some questions are answered, other beget other questions; some entries are confabulation (a word you’ll learn about within the book itself).  Here I must respond to some reviews I have read attacking this part of the novel.  Several readers claim that this novel is repetitive and still others claim it is downright predictable and not worth two cents.  I disagree wholeheartedly on those two points.  Yes there is a repetitive quality to the diary entries but isn’t that too be expected?  If your going to make the gimmick work and the main protagonist is one who repeatedly forgets who they are and must read a journal to understand the who, where and why of their situation, recapitulation must occur.  The strength here in Watsons prose is what to repeat and what not to repeat in order to tell a compelling and taught story.  I feel he does a very good job overall.  As far as being “predictable”; good for you, you figured out the ending!  It requires more than two sentences of ones opinion to qualify a books predictability as a negative when balanced against scores of books and movies that cover much of the same plot lines.  We live in a world where more books and movies are released weekly that more come out than we know off.  This is going to mean that scores of books and movies we see and read are going to have many of the same machinations, the more you read or see within a particular genre the more sense you may already have of what is to come.  I feel that Watson’s writing was not predictable but gave clues for the reader and the main character (as she was essentially a reader as well) to figure out what was going on.

The other negative reviews called the book vulgar and containing too much sex and sexuality.  These reviews need to be qualified as well, in my opinion.  A book may have more “F bombs” than you’re comfortable with but that is more the reader than the writer.  And to be honest I didn’t notice that many F words till the end of the book, where the intensity of the action occuring deemed the language relevant and not in the least gratuitous.  In response to  the sexuality of the novel being a negative, I felt that it was handled deftly and so well done that I truly thought that S was a woman and not Steven.  Throughout the novel Christine is mystified at her body as a near fifty year old woman where in her mind she is still in her mid-twenties.  She is galvanized by her confusion of wanting sex, ability to, “right to” deny sex to a man that she is told she loves and loves her.  I feel that the writing from Christine’s POV about her sexuality is once again relevant and dealt with in a non vulgar fashion.  Opinions of this nature should be backed up with more than a sentence or two.

All in all I felt the narrative was well paced , Christine’s angst with her situation was communicated in a tense and intriguing way.  I had some ideas about how it would all end, but that is more to our cultures exposure to vast stories and plots than poor writing.  However due to the fault of one gimmick that in truth kinda does crumble the structure of the story, I recommend either borrowing it or hit the strand for a cheaper edition (maybe wait for paperback).  I will, all that said, read his next book; I enjoyed the ride.

Advertisements