SJ Watson has had the kind of 12 months that most aspiring authors dream of. He was working as an NHS audiologist when he was accepted onto a writing course at the Faber Academy in 2009, where he wrote Before I Sleep. Since then it has been published in over 30 countries, Watson has won the 2011 Crime Writers Association’s John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, and Ridley Scott has picked up the film rights. All this and it was only published at the end of April 2011. It’s a novel which I’ve been meaning to read since it was published, but I was trying to reduce by to-be-read pile before buying lots of new books. That went as well as you can imagine, but I did resist this one until yesterday. As you can see, it didn’t take long for me to tear through- in fact, I would have finished it last night if I hadn’t been busy in the evening.
Christine Lucas wakes up one morning to find herself in bed with a man who she doesn’t recognise. Thinking that she’s had a drunken one-night stand, she creeps into the bathroom, looks in the mirror and finds that she also doesn’t recognise the woman who looks back at her. In her mind she is 27, but the woman in the mirror is middle-aged. The man in the bed wakes and explains that he is her husband, she has had an accident and now wakes every morning with no memory of her life since. It’s an intriguing premise, and one which lends itself well to a thriller. Christine has been an amnesiac for about twenty years when the novel opens, with every day being the same, until she gets a call from Dr. Nash, who tells her that he has been helping her with her memory, and that she has been writing a journal for a month. Reading this diary is the only way in which she can build a picture of more than a day at a time, and it is this that leads her to question what she is being told about her past.
It’s a hard book to review, as I don’t want to give away too much of the story (apologies if I have), but I can say that it is brilliant. Written in the first person, Watson captures the ragged nature of Christine’s memories fabulously with lots of repetition and uncertainty. It only has three characters for the main part, but I didn’t feel that this was a handicap, but rather that it added to the claustrophobic nature of Christine’s day-to-day life, where she depends on Ben, her husband, and Dr. Nash for everything. The flashbacks, where her memory comes back momentarily, feel realistic, and her anguish at not being able to remember more is sometimes painful to read. If I had a criticism, it would be that the last chapter feels a little rushed and contrived, but this was partly due to the constraints of the concept, and it in no way distracts from the tense narrative.
I can’t wait to see what Watson comes up with next, and I think that Before I Go To Sleep will make a fantastic film if handled sensitively and not made too ‘Hollywood’.