Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep47 year-old Christine has lost her memory for twenty some years due to trauma. She wakes up every morning to a forgotten past. She spends her day piecing together a life, who and where she is, her personal history, and, who her husband Ben is. Upon the advice of Dr. Nash, she writes it all down in a journal before she goes to sleep at night, for she’ll wake up the next morning wiped clean of her day old memory once again.

The book deals with some interesting issues. If the past is horrible to recall, would it be better if one does not remember, or, would one be better off knowing the truth despite pain? Is one made more vulnerable by knowing or not knowing? Further, if mental images conjure up, how can one be sure they are memories of actual happenings and not one’s imagination?

Author S. J. Watson leads the reader into a maze of intrigues, teasing us with an unreliable narrator Christine, casting shadows of imminent dangers, and trying to capture us with her vulnerability. So memory loss is an effective plot device, keeping us in the dark guessing, creating suspense, and revealing ever so slowly what really had taken place that caused the amnesia to set in, and how she could ever escape.

The book starts off with a most interesting scenario as Christine wakes up to an unknown world, but towards the middle it seems like it has forgotten that it is just the protagonist who has amnesia, not the readers, as it repeats the facts and descriptions with Christine’s journal entries. The last part is a page-turning thriller, albeit with a relatively improbable ending. The last pages explaining everything with a neatly wrapped up ‘here you go, see how logical it is’ kind of finish.

Memories… such a thematic element can be exceptionally gratifying to explore with deeper characterization. Surely the author has brought up the idea that memory defines us, a reader seeking for a more contemplative rendering of such a concept would be disappointed however, for Watson has chosen to use this interesting thematic material to craft a suspense thriller and not an idea-driven literary work. So what we have with notions relating to memories, to the nature of our identity and personality… etc. are merely used to build up a suspenseful plot. As a thriller, the book aims to lead on and not delve in.

Am I being a bit harsh here? Why, I just caught myself. I could well have been more lenient if I were not reading it along with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past). Am I being fair to make comparison? It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Yet the coincident is too fascinating… both deal with remembering and sleeping, albeit one trying to fall asleep while the other trying not to. Just thinking… even the book covers that I have are similar.

Lots of ‘I love you’s’ are uttered, but none that can stir up any emotions in me the reader. Several films kept conjuring up in my mind as I read… Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Vow, and I must say the latter two managed to stir some affective resonance in me while exploring the topic of amnesia and a love relationship. But with this book, I just wanted to race to the end. For some, this might well be proof of an entertaining read.

And that is why I have high hopes for its film adaptation. Yes, I must applaud Watson for his strong debut. This novel published in 2011 has gained awards and accolades, on the bestseller lists in several countries, and translated into 30 plus languages. Its film rights has been snatched up by Ridley Scott. Filming now, it features the impressive cast of Nicole Kidman as Christine, Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Ben, and Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Dr. Nash; Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy) is also on board. This is definitely a film I want to watch, not just because of the actors, but the screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who will direct as well. Joffe has shown us, with his script for The American (George Clooney stars) that yes, sometimes the film can be better than the book. Let’s hope this is also the case.

In the end page Watson notes that his novel, though totally fictitious, is inspired by actual medical cases, particularly that of Clive Wearing‘s, the British musicologist, conductor and BBC music producer, who has the same condition as Christine’s, albeit his is an even shorter memory span, just a short minute or so. His real life accounts have been recorded by his loving wife Deborah Wearing in her book Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia. While he lives in the constantly present, he does not forget music or his love for his wife. Now that would be one inspiring book to read.


Click here to watch a short clip on Clive and Deborah Wearing on YouTube. Does he not remind you of another real life character, a pianist, whose life had also been made into a movie?

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson”

  1. You’re right — the Wearing book would indeed be fascinating. And with a cast like that, it certainly has some legs to it. But I’m inclined to think that this is a book I would rather “see” than read. Maybe my mind is just too linear, but the concept doesn’t seem to resonate with me for a print piece. But the movie… Hmmm.


    1. Jeanie,

      You know, actually the book evokes lots of images. In a way, it’s quite ‘script ready’. I don’t know anything about the film except the cast, director and screenwriter. But considering the book, I’m sure the film will have lots of flashbacks… hopefully the actors make up for it for those who are more ‘linear minded’. Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth just finished filming The Railway Man. And Mark Strong and Firth are in Tinker Tailor together.


  2. I never did check out the author; is it interesting that I assumed Watson was female? I had to go check. 🙂

    I noted in my review, too, that I expect/hope that the movie will be better.


    1. Ah yes, my trade paperback copy has Watson’s photo. He works at the NHS as an audiologist in London. Took a novel writing program and this book is the result. Great achievement as a debut writer. Wonder if he will continue his day job after this. As for me, I look forward to the movie. 😉


    1. Turn the Page Reviews,

      Since the book is written in the suspense thriller genre, I think the film can bring out the mood and suspense more vividly… of course that depends on how the director deals with it.


  3. Yes, I remember frantically flipping pages as I neared the end of the book. I tend to like tidy (or tidy-ish) endings so I wasn’t too disappointed. Though the question of memories defining our realities is a bit frightening. Roomie has been working with people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and we can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have memories that are constantly slipping out of one’s grasp.


    1. nikkipolani,

      Do click on the link to watch that YouTube clip of Clive and Deborah Wearing. You’ll get a glimpse of the condition… but that is no fiction, they live it daily.


  4. I’ve heard a lot about this book and am curious to read it, but I’m afraid the writing style will put me off. I’ve flicked through the first couple of pages and it’s the sort of writing that gets the job done, but it’s hard to say anything better about it than that. If the story is really good, it won’t matter as much, but I’ve heard the ending isn’t great…. And so it sits on the shelf unread. I will pick it up one day, I’m sure!


    1. litlove,

      As much as some advocating ‘readability over obscurity’, I still find there’s a line, albeit blurry, delineating ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction. It’s interesting that by coincident, I’m reading this book and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time together. Hence, I’m exposed to two ends of the continuum of a similar topic, memory. 😉


      1. Oh dear, this is one of the few books I actually gave up on. Although lots of people obviously love it (and admire it – am less able to process that fact), I couldn’t take the repetitiveness. It wasn’t just that the language was workaday, I found that with the blurriness of the memories and sense of reality, I didn’t care about any of the people either.


        1. Denise,

          I can understand how you feel… as I said in my review, the author seemed to have forgotten that it’s the protagonist who had lost her memory, not the readers. We don’t need to be reminded over and over again with every new chapter what had happened. Hope the screenwriter would be smart enough to offer us a quicker paced thriller. Oh well, too late. The movie is coming out soon.


  5. Like nikkipolani, I kept thinking about Alzheimer’s, dementia and my own mother toward the end of her life. She still was able to joke about it, as her loss wasn’t nearly so severe. Still, she often said she enjoyed this book or that “every time she read it”. Especially with longer books or those with a complicated plot or many characters, she’d have forgotten them all by the time by the time she finished the book and put it back on the shelf.

    I can’t imagine losing my memory, but as some have said, the good thing about losing your memories is that you don’t know you’ve lost them. Well, perhaps. I do think the experience is worst for those on the outside of it – especially when what’s lost is the memory of relationship.


    1. Linda,

      This story brings out another scenario. We all associate memory loss with the old. Here we have a 47 year-old who has lost her memory since her twenties. Fictional of course, and in the hands of a suspense writer, lots of things could happen. But what impresses me is the real life experience of Clive Wearing. Do click on the link to watch that YouTube video.


  6. My mother had Alzheimers so I was relieved that this had nothing to do with that kind of memory loss, rather it was a somewhat rare form of amnesia (no idea if it’s a real condition or not.) I enjoyed the suspense but my credibility was strained all along; for me a huge factor was the journal itself and how, towards the end she would be able to wade through all the different stories we were inundated with at all. I decided to suspend my disbelief and just enjoy it. On that level it was fast and fun and I agree it should make a fantastic film, especially with that talent on board. I’ve written up my take too and posted it tonight.


  7. “If the past is horrible to recall, would it be better if one does not remember, or, would one be better off knowing the truth despite pain? Is one made more vulnerable by knowing or not knowing? Further, if mental images conjure up, how can one be sure they are memories of actual happenings and not one’s imagination?”

    I really like this thought provoking sentence. This in itself makes me want to read the book. I’ll have to add it to my list.


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