Imagine waking up in the morning in bed with a stranger, in a room you don't recognise, not knowing your own name or recognising your own face in the mirror. This is how Christine Lucas starts every day. A head injury she suffered years earlier left her with an unusual form of amnesia. She forgets her life since the accident, and is surprised each day to find she is not the twenty- something she remembers but is actually in her late forties. She can remember things that happen in the course of a single day but when she goes to sleep at the end of the day the memories of that day are erased and she starts the next morning with a clean slate. Debut author S.J. Watson does a terrific job of showing what a disorienting and often frightening existence Christine's must be. As the heroine herself describes it she is like an animal, living from moment to moment, unable to plan for the future or learn from the past. She is completely dependent on her husband, Ben. This is why it is so terrifying when one morning she reads in her private journal written in her own handwriting three life changing words: "Don't trust Ben."
The premise is somewhat similar to that of the movie Memento (2000), in which the main character suffered an accident which leaves him with his long term memory intact but unable to make new memories. He knows who he is and details about his past but not what he did five minutes ago. Christine, on the other hand, can remember entire days at a time but is missing nearly two decades of her life. She does not remember her own wedding to Ben nor anything about their married life together. She cannot even recall the accident that left her this way. She begins to meet in secret with a doctor who hopes he can help her to begin to remember more about her life and he encourages her to keep a journal which helps give her some continuity from one day to the next. She keeps this journal secret from Ben and through it she comes to learn of some inconsistencies in the story he has told her. Was it really a car accident that left her the way she is? Why are there so few pictures of her and Ben together? And why doesn't her oldest friend come to visit her?
Things are further complicated by the revelation that Christine, who remembers wanting to be a novelist, did in fact write a novel and was working on another when she lost her memory. She begins to wonder how much of what seems to be coming back to her is real and how much she might have made up, either intentionally or unconsciously to fill the gaps in her memory.
It is difficult to say much more about the plot without giving anything away. On the whole the book is very cleverly written. The amnesia device (which would be a good title for a thriller) could easily have been corny, but in this story it works. I was a little disappointed because I thought that the story, with all its hints about the crossing of boundaries between reality and fiction, was going to go somewhere a bit more interesting than it did . The ending felt forced, and frankly a little lazy. It wasn't quite on the level of "it was all a dream", but it did skirt around explaining how exactly Christine got out of the dangerous situation she was in. It felt like a chunk of the climax was missing, but maybe that was intentional, to leave the reader feeling a little of the confusion and frustration that the heroine must.
At times the story is achingly sad. I felt for Christine having lost all hope of having a career and a family, and for Ben, who had to face the fact that the woman he loved no longer loved him or even knew who he was. Before I Go To Sleep is part a beautiful love story and part a gripping thriller. It starts slowly but towards the end you will find it hard to put down. It is a great debut novel and I will be looking out for more by the same author.
If you enjoy this book you might like Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, which touches on some similar themes.