Friday was my seventh anniversary of getting together with my lovely fiancé Freddie, and we spent it in Oxford, wedding planning during the day and having lots of fun in the gorgeous Malmaison hotel in the evening.
It’s always slightly odd to visit Oxford nowadays. I do it about once or twice a year on average, and I can generally barely remember how to navigate the place, but it always helps to refresh my writing. Malmaison is built around the old Oxford Castle, and the weird mound that I use as the Cavaliers headquarters/cells in Screaming Spires. It was very strange to wake up and see that through my bedroom window in the morning.
I seem to be promising this every week, but now I’m starting to get drafts of Ivory Terrors back from my beta readers, there’ll be a post with a cover and a definite release date asap – within a week maybe, or two if I’m really lax.
For today, here’s a review of a book that everybody seems to have been talking about for a while, and that I was in two minds about whether to read, but have finally got round to: Before I Go to Sleep.
BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP – SJ WATSON
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 only be telling you half the story.
Welcome to Christine’s life.
You know how when you really love someone, you’re aware of their faults, but they somehow don’t bother you in the slightest? That’s how I felt about this book. Sometimes, I read negative reviews of books I’ve really enjoyed, and can barely believe the reviewer has read the same book as me. That’s not the case here. If you look on Goodreads or Amazon, you’ll find several one star reviews that accuse the book’s plot of being far-fetched, contrived and predictable – and on reflection, I agree with them. And yet I managed to entirely suspend my disbelief whilst reading, and I enjoyed it so much that those faults don’t bother me one little bit.
The story was so compellingly written and whizzed along at such a pace that I could barely wait to find out both what was going to happen next and what was really going on. There was a great air of mystery, and of tension, even fear. Most of the time, the heroine does little more than wander around her house, write in her diary, look at old photographs, and have dinner with her husband. And yet the author rachets up the pressure so that these superficially homely scenes have more drama and menace than most authors manage to achieve with scenes of a police shoot-out or a bank heist.
Amnesia has been used many times before in books and films (this particularly reminded me of Memento), but this book makes it feel fresh, and really gets you thinking about what it would be like to wake up every morning not knowing who you are or what happened either the day before or ten years ago. Even without the underlying sense that something creepy was going on, this premise would have been terrifying and moving enough on its own.
Christine is the ultimate unreliable narrator – so unreliable that even she has no idea whether or not she’s telling the truth about anything that has happened previously. For the last few decades, following an initially unspecified accident, she loses her memories every time she goes to sleep, and each morning has to be reminded of her age and reintroduced to her husband. But when the book opens, she’s started to write a diary on the advice of a new doctor. There’s a bit of conventional present tense narrative to open and close the novel, but the bulk of the text is made up of this diary, which slowly starts to give her the thing she’s lacked for so long – a sense of continuity and of who she is.
Previously, with no frame of reference, Christine would accept anything her husband told her as absolute truth, but through her journal, she, and the reader, start to realise he is hiding things, if not outright lying. But it’s never clear whether he’s doing it to protect her, for his own convenience or for a darker motive – and the evidence swings back and forth as the days pass, until the reader is unsure what to believe. The journal and the slow reveal both worked really well for me.
I’d highly recommend this as a quick, thrilling and unique read. I’ve gone for four stars rather than five as it’s ultimately a little lacking in substance and because while the overly convenient plot devices didn’t spoil my enjoyment, they did stop me from regarding it as a truly great novel.