Sunday, September 16, 2012

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

Before I Go To Sleep(Read 09/09/12)
This morning I woke up and remembered who I am, who the man I live with is, what happened yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, and so on. There are things I can't remember, of course, things that maddeningly get stuck right out of reach when I try to think of them, and surely there are things I don't even realize I've forgotten, and maybe I never will. But I can remember the landmarks of my life, leading up to this morning when I woke up, and after reading this book, I realize that I take all this for granted. As almost everyone does.

When I started this book, and realized just what it would mean to have no memory of anything upon waking, every single day, I admit that the thought terrified me.

I am an empathetic reader; I put myself into the shoes of the characters in the stories I read and live their lives by the proxy of the book. Which, if you ask me, is the way it should be done. I WANT to be able to identify with characters and feel as though the events of their lives are real. I want to care about them, and fear for them, and hope for them. I don't want there to be distance between a story and myself. If there is, it's a problem, and I'm likely to not enjoy the book.

So, coming back to my point: This story terrified me. I thought of it in terms of my own life, and how much I rely on my sense of self to propel me through my life. I am me. The thought of losing "me" is terrifying. But it's more than that. Being only able to retain the memories of the events of a single day is a frightening, claustrophobic thought.

In a 16 hour day, between periods of sleep, how much time would it take to relearn your life? How much would you need or want to know? And what would you - or COULD you - do with the rest of your day, knowing that as soon as you go to sleep, it'll all be gone and the next day would start again just as the last had. The limitations of such a life are staggering. There's no way to LIVE in such a short time, when you have to relearn everything that came before just to get a base upon which to build. Could you trust the people around you to tell you the truth about yourself? The potential for manipulation and control would be so huge, even if it was done the with best possible intent.

It struck me that people who have lost the ability to retain new memories are stuck in a continuous loop of living hell, even if there's nothing overtly bad day to day. The amount of trust required to depend on others in a life like that is more than I could manage. It would drive me insane - never knowing whether the things I was being told were the truth, or if I was being told the things that would hurt or upset me the least. It would drive me insane to feel that I have a right to my own life and history, but not the means to it.

So... Just on that level, the empathetic way I put my feet into the shoes of the character, this book affected me quite a bit. I realize that most of this is what I brought to the table, but the story presented the day to day experience of a life lived on these terms in a way that made it easy to identify with, and so I count that as a success.

There were a few issues that I had with the book, though. The writing overall was great - easy to read, expressive and filled with imagery, but not overwritten. There were some sections that felt a little disjointed, such as this section:
"I am shaking, can barely breathe. I feel that I have not only lived an entire life in the last few hours, but I have changed. I am not the same person who met Dr Nash this morning, who sat down to read the journal. I have a past now. A sense of myself. I know what I have, and what I have lost. I realize I am crying.
I look at the clock next to me and there is a little jolt of shock. Only now do I realize that it is the same clock as the one in the journal that I have been reading, that I am in the same living room, am the same person. Only now do I fully understand that the story I have been reading is mine."
Besides the lapse into passive voice there, what jumps out at me is this: How can she feel that she has a sense of herself, that she has a history in one paragraph, but then just a few sentences later state that she hadn't attributed those things to herself before, and now finally understood that it was HER life? Perhaps if these paragraphs were reversed, then it would be less of a contradiction: 'I realize with a jolt the journal I've been reading is about my life. I feel like I've lived an entire life time in the last few hours. I now have a history, a sense of myself.'

Continuing on regarding the writing, the dialogue was a little wooden, I thought. A lot of name-comma-statements or name-comma-questions - but mostly the writing worked for me otherwise.

I enjoyed the pacing of the story, the slow unraveling of the mystery, and the shocks when Christine would realize something that she'd lost along with her memory, and they'd shock me too. How could someone forget about this, or that, or some other thing that others take completely for granted and don't bother even thinking of?

I also enjoyed the variances of Christine's personality. The different ways she thought about, and reacted to sex, especially. There were times when I felt clearly that she was in her 20-something memory zone, but trying to think about sex as a 47 year old who'd been married for two decades, despite the sex itself. Or when she thought of sex as a 20-something who hadn't yet settled down would. I thought that this was well done, and illustrated to me how much our personalities are defined by our memory. It was mentioned in the story as well that neither she nor her husband knew who she would "wake up as", but to me, the little details showed this more than the overt mentions did.

I felt that the mystery aspect was a little predictable, but at the same time, I feel like the reader is supposed to understand before Christine does. I had quite a few theories in the first half of the book, including (view spoiler)[the husband using his knowledge of chemistry to keep her from forming new memories, as a form of manipulation and control. She'd never even realize, and would be the perfect victim. But as I read, there was no daily pattern that would support this, evening tea, or a nightcap, or "medication" or mashed potatoes with dinner every night, or anything, so I let it go (hide spoiler)], and around the mid-point formulated the winning theory. But the fact that I was right doesn't bother me, as it usually does, because the reader has more info than Christine did, and the details were more intriguing to me than the event itself.

I did think that the ending was just a bit too rushed, and that the resolution was somewhat pat, too perfectly open ended, in a way.

Overall, this is a great book, and as it's Watson's first, it's impressive. I very much enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading more from him in the future.