Christine wakes up every morning not knowing who she is. She couldn’t tell you where she’s living, what year it is, and doesn’t know the man claiming to be her husband. He tells her she suffered an accident that rendered her brain incapable of recalling past memories and retaining new ones. She can only remember what happens within one day, until she falls asleep. While she dreams, her memory resets itself, wiping the slate clean. She doesn’t know who to trust, when she can’t even trust her own mind to give her the truth, and piecing together the reality of Christine’s life feels insurmountable. Until she finds her journal.
I really love the way Before I Go To Sleep is written, the immediacy of the language. Never has first person present tense felt more appropriate. Christine lives in the moment; she has nothing of her past, nothing concrete at all, and her future will forever and always be a mystery because she’ll never be able to build any kind of path of experience to lead to it. I cringed in sympathy at Christine’s horror when, convinced she is in her twenties, she goes to the mirror to find a body heading for old age. Christine’s mind has robbed her of the prime of her life; there are some days she wakes up with only the faint memories of being a child. The dull dread of reliving that same horror every day, with no way of actually recalling that these days even happened and will occur, is a giant, white elephant parking its rear in the center of her thoughts all the time.
Christine has no choice but to hope the people around her have the best intentions, because she doesn’t know any of them. And by any of them, I mean all of two people. Dr. Nash may be the only person Christine can trust, only because of the presence of the journal he told her to start, to help keep track of her days and trigger memories. His genuine effort to help Christine is sweet, and she clings to his presence like a buoy in an ocean, but even this is suspect: why is he going to these lengths? And Ben. She knows, unnervingly, that she cannot function away from her husband because of the reboot every morning. If Ben wasn’t there to clue her in, if Christine never kept a record of her days, she would be lost forever, completely at the mercy of her ravaged mind. What she begins to uncover, however, proves that some nasty shadows lurk about in her life – and Ben sidesteps the truth more often than not.
I was suspicious of everything for Christine’s sake. Oh, the wedding photos were burned in a house fire, Ben? There are no pictures for Chris to look at? Her parents are dead? Where are her friends? Does this doctor have totally good intentions? Why is Ben lying to her? Why, on the first page of her journal, does she put this reminder: Don’t Trust Ben?
Every weird clue or lie I jumped on and analyzed, piled it on the growing mountain of That Seems Shady, Ben. I wanted Christine to find answers, I wanted her memory to return – I cheered whenever she remembered anything at all from her past. As her true past slowly started to reveal itself, it just grew more awful, like pulling back layers of old kitchen floor and tile and finding more rot on the other side.
The fact that a huge chunk of the novel is just her reading the diary of the days leading up to the present day doesn’t hinder the story at all. I forgot that the entire novel basically occurs over the course of one day, because I was so absorbed. Each day she learns something new, either from Dr. Nash, Ben, or her own fickle mind. She is so isolated that when she finally connects with her only friend, I got a little choked up. How often we take our friends’ presence for granted. What a huge part of our lives they are, in the memories they help make, their laughter and advice and companionship. The absence of such a confidante is keenly felt, and I ached for Christine. Chris is like a prisoner in her home, with a warden that is never really truthful, for Her Own Sake, and she feels indebted to him for his patience, his love, his willingness to rehearse the same play every single morning to tell Christine who she is and why she’s there. I was afraid for her, anxious, and the suspense over what she would discover about herself and her life just oozed over every page.
S.J. Watson managed to make a woman reading her diary nerve-wracking, y’all.
At the climax of the novel, there is a scene involving her journal that wrecked me almost as bad as it did Christine. I experience moments of sheer panic whenever something weird happens to my laptop, and I have that flash of losing everything I’ve written and the thought of it is devastating. How would it feel to lose writing that told me who I am, that acted as my lifeline creating a life that existed beyond one day at a time with no other connection to each new day?
The only qualms I had with the story concerned the ending and the big reveal. It’s almost too farfetched, almost a little too hard to swallow. At the very least, it hadn’t gone on very long – a month or two, if I recall correctly. I was simultaneously satisfied and dissatisfied with the ending. I liked the note it finished off with, but the finale was so rushed, and I craved to read more about Christine interacting with two particular people.
Beyond that, I flat out adored this novel. I give Before I Go To Sleep four out of five memory banks.
“These are the details I should remember, I suppose. The little things. Perhaps it is these trivialities I have been writing down in my book, these small hooks on which a whole life is hung.” – 30
“The nineties. It was odd to hear summed up in two words a decade that I could not remember living through. I must have missed so much. So much music, so many films and books, so much news. Disasters, tragedies, wars. Whole countries might have fallen to pieces as I wandered, oblivious, from one day to the next.” – 49
“When I tried to organize my memories, they fluttered and vanished, like a feather caught on the wind that changes direction whenever a hand snatches at it.” – 109
“With a shudder, I realize that he has done all this before. His grief is not new. It has had the time to bed down within him, to become part of his foundations, rather than something that rocks them.” – 119