3.5 stars,  mystery,  thriller

Review: ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ by S.J.Watson

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis (taken from Goodreads.com)

Memories define us.

So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep?

Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love–all forgotten overnight.

And the one person you trust may be telling you only half the story.

Welcome to Christine’s life.


I was intrigued by the idea of this book as soon as I read the synopsis. I loved the idea of the psychological/sociological questions that the story had the potential to raise.  Do our memories define us?  Even if I didn’t remember that I hate milk, I would still hate milk.  That wouldn’t change.  Some things about us just are but maybe not the things that really matter.  Like my boyfriend of 5 years or everything I’ve learnt that means I can practice as a lawyer.  Would I still be the ‘same person’ if I forgot all of the experiences that have lead to me having the personality that I do?  Is personality innate or is it learnt and drawn from our memories of the choices we’ve made and our interactions?

Watson does do a pretty good job of taking these points on and looking at what’s left of and for Christine when her memories are lost.  The extension of the idea that I hadn’t really thought through before starting was how Christine could, if she chose, write a life for herself.  If every day she has to pick up and read about her life, why not write in good memories or eliminate the bad?  If you do something embarrassing but could choose not to remember it tomorrow, would you? Or would you feel as though you owed it to yourself to make sure you remembered the good and the bad?  So yes, quite thought-provoking.

As well as being a look at memory and psychology, however, it also happens to be a gripping thriller.  I would guess that not having a clue who anybody is or why they’re in your life would breed an element of suspicion and it’s the uncertainty that makes the book so atmospheric.  There’s always a question lurking about other characters’ motives and comments and I never quite felt…settled while I was reading it.  Take Ben (Christine’s husband), for example.  There’s a question mark hanging over him for the whole book and Christine vacillates between sympathy and anger regularly, making it hard to work out who is “good” and who isn’t and driving the mystery that keeps the plot going.

I’ve read reviews that criticise the book for being repetitive. Although there is a modicum of truth in the comment, I actually found that it helped the story, rather than hindered it.  Christine’s life is repetitive.  She has to wake up every day, look at a face she doesn’t know in the mirror and try to put her life back together by reading her diary and speaking to her husband and her doctor.  I never felt bored by the elements that pop up necessarily regularly and they helped me empathise with Christine that little bit more.  

That isn’t to say I didn’t have any criticisms of my own.  I’ve been torn about whether to mention my main gripe or not.  There were some points in the book where I felt the strength of the “message” was partially undermined by actions that jarred a little, even while I can appreciate that without them, the story wouldn’t work.  The glaring one is Christine’s propensity to forget everything about her past and her life but somehow manage to remember where her diary was and that she should read it.  Like I said, I am aware that the book wouldn’t work without this because Christine would then just keep bumbling on in her endless cycle of forgetting but sometimes it stretched the air of authenticity a touch too far.  Not, of course, that I would presume to suggest a way to do it better.  Just that sometimes you will have to suspend your cynical side (if you have one!) and go with the story.  

And phewf – I was so relieved about the ending.  As it approached, I got a little bit worried that it was going to be too twee and light.  I actually think that it’s the kind of ending that some people will really appreciate (like me) and that some people will hate.  If you like your books to box things up tidily and make sure that there aren’t any threads for your brain to tug on after you’ve finished it, take this as a light warning that you might be a bit peeved by this one.  

Overall: A book that will worm its way into your psyche and unsettle you. It won’t always keep you hanging on the edge of your seat BUT you will always feel as though the next time you’ll be hanging on the edge of your seat might be right around corner.

Date finished:  4 March 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre:  Thriller; Crime
Published: by Black Swan in January 2012