S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep
HarperCollins, 2011

Don’t start reading S.J. Watson’s debut novel before you go to sleep, unless you don’t mind postponing that good night’s sleep you were anticipating. It is, as the blurbs suggest, a page-turner, and you will find it difficult – if not impossible – to stop reading Before I Go to Sleep until you turn its final page.

A lot of readers of literary fiction who appreciate the idea of a thrilling tale are disappointed by novels marketed as thrillers.

Sometimes this is because the writing mechanics are weak; sometimes this is because the plot is contrived to create a tension that begins to feel artificial; and sometimes this is because the characters are two-dimensional and behave inconsistently or incredibly, for the author’s convenience.

Before I Go to Sleep does not disappoint on any of these scores. You can be uncompromisingly entertained by S.J. Waton’s thriller, and you can even ponder the meaning of life, if you so choose; touching on major themes of loss and identity, it raises serious questions, but the pacing allows readers to set those aside to focus on turning pages instead.

Stylistically the prose is unadorned. S.J. Watson relies on barebones construction, but the prose does not feel merely functional, but purposefully simple.

“It felt as if everything was suddenly taking off, things were moving too fast for me to keep up with them.” (This is the narrator speaking, but it also applies to the reader’s experience as well.)

Nothing gets in the way of this debut novel’s pacing. The story’s tripartite structure allows for an organic suspense, which suits the narrator’s experience, and leaves the reader alongside her, unsure but compelled.

“‘You’re certain you want to know?’ … I felt like he was giving me one final chance. You can still walk away, he seemed to be saying. You can go on with your life without knowing what I am about to tell you.

But he was wrong. I couldn’t. Without the truth, I am living less than half a life.”

Our narrator has to rely on somebody else to fill in the gaps because she is incapable of remembering them herself. (And, no, there is no way that I am including anything like a spoiler in here.)

You don’t have to be a neurologist to appreciate the complexity and terror of her situation: daily she awakes with no memory of the previous day. Those experiences are lost to her along with all others, except from her earliest years, so that she awakens daily, surprised to be a woman, no longer a girl, needing to rebuild her identity daily.

But you can see where the vulnerability comes in here. How does she know who to trust in recreating her reality? How does she even know if she can trust herself?

And herein lies the true success of S.J. Watson’s story: the reader believes wholeheartedly in a character who does not even know herself.

For a novel like this, told in the first person, to succeed, not only does it need to appeal at the basic level of humanity, but it needs to involve readers directly at a personal level. To keep those pages turning, readers must not only become quickly and wholly invested in the narrator’s struggle to alter the circumstances of her existence, but readers must also be able to trust that – in a story in which nothing else is secure – this relationship will remain solid.

The only connection which remains dependable in this situation is the connection between the narrator and the reader, and S.J. Watson manages that effectively indeed.

No matter how many other betrayals may exist (and the story is full of potential on this score), readers must consistently rely upon their connection with the narrator, with a sense of dependability and trust.

Bolstering the narrator’s credibility is the sense of mystery unpinning the science of neurology. The days of understanding the brain as a mechanical device, with individual parts responsible for specific tasks, are gone; scientists now accept that the brain is plastic and can restructure itself when it has been damaged.

The brain has an incredible capacity for managing stress. Its capacity for invention (call it ‘confabulation’, the ability for someone to make up the answers when the truth is inaccessible) is remarkable. It can also automatically revise events that are too painful to accept, so that truths become more palatable. And, so, people can function in situations which would, otherwise, be too overwhelming.

Call it coping, or call it deception: this, too, creates brilliant possibilities in the hands of a novelist.

S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep is spot-on mechanically, organically compelling, and it is rooted in a voice which is credible and sympathetic: it is also a thrilling story that might leave you sleepless – literally.

PS Just published today: check it out!