October 12, 2011

BOOKS: Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson (2011)

Christine has amnesia. Any new memories she makes during the day are lost when she sleeps, and memories from earlier in her life are erratic, coming and going unpredictably. So every morning, Christine wakes up with a man she doesn't recognize, who patiently explains that he is her husband, Ben, and tells her that this has been her life for more than 20 years now, ever since the car accident.

But Ben doesn't know that Christine has begun seeing a new doctor, or that on the doctor's advice, she's been keeping a journal. The doctor phones every day to remind her who he is, and where she's hidden her journal; he thinks that writing down her daily experiences will help her to develop and retain new memories. As Watson's novel opens, Christine has gone through what is apparently her morning ritual with Ben, and is sitting down to read her journal. On the first page, below the neatly written "Journal of Christine Lucas," she is horrified to see written in frantic bold letters, "Don't trust Ben."

That's a pretty nifty setup for a thriller, and though the payoff doesn't quite live up to the premise (I'm not sure any payoff could), the book is still a fine piece of entertainment. I particularly like the way Watson uses Christine's amnesia to subvert some of the basic expectations of mystery writing. Normally, for instance, when some apparently irrelevant detail is repeated for the third or fourth time, we readers can say, "Aha! That must be a clue!," but here, everything has to be repeated over and over because Christine has to learn it all from scratch with each new day.

And Watson does a nice job of laying the groundwork for the big twist at the end, slowly ratcheting up the tension until the final confrontation. Is that twist as surprising as it ought to be? Well, no; you're likely to see it coming long before the end of the book. But it's a well written scene, and it delivers enough emotion that I'm willing to forgive the mild failure in the suspense department. A very promising first novel.

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