The pre-publication hyperbole on S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep has easily matched that of any fiction debut in recent memory, with accolades from luminaries such as Dennis Lehane, Mo Hayder and Val McDermid. So what’s all the fuss about? The basic premise, that of an amnesia victim suffering from debilitating short-term memory loss, has been thoroughly mined in print (James Hilton’s Random Harvest, G.H. Ephron’s Amnesia) and cinema (50 First Dates, Memento). Where Watson diverges from the formula is in his exhaustive exploration of one woman’s spiral into paranoia. Does Christine have a happy marriage, or is it a total sham? Does she have a son, and if so, did he die in Iraq, or is that just a figment of her overworked imagination? And what’s up with her doctor, anyway? From early on, it is clear that her husband is not being entirely truthful with her, but to what end—Christine’s well-being or something darker? On the sly, Christine begins keeping a journal, documenting the inconsistencies in the stories she is told by those she thought she could trust, leading to a showdown of epic proportions.
So, what’s the verdict? Well, Before I Go to Sleep is unquestionably a suspenseful and gripping psychological thriller, relentlessly paced, but there are a couple of stumbling points that stretch taut the fabric of coincidence in the interest of furthering the plot. That said, the novel is a noteworthy debut indeed, and it’s not difficult to see why this former British NHS worker has caused such a stir in literary circles.
Read an interview with S.J. Watson about Before I Go to Sleep.