Consider this Part 2 of my “this sort of qualified as a free book” series. Clearly, it’s going up more than a couple of days after Part 1. To be fair, part of my distraction this time was racism disguised as satire.
The other part was this fear/obsession thing I’m going through. I’m freaking out a little bit, you guys. This Thursday I’m having a procedure called radiofrequency ablasion intercostal nerve blocks on 7 of my ribs. They’re essentially using a giant hot needle to cauterize my nerves between those ribs. Since I’ve ruled out getting a spinal cord stimulator (hello, you can become paralyzed from that shit), this is the last procedural card I’ve got. And I’m playing it. (There’s also the possibility the MD could, um, puncture my lung in the process.) So if anyone out there has good thoughts, vibes, prayers (if that’s your thing) – whatever you have to throw into the universe, if you happen to be thinking it on Thursday, I wouldn’t be opposed.
Anyway. This qualifies as “sort of” a free book because I did in fact originally check it out from the library. But the cover was so beautiful. SO BEAUTIFUL, YOU GUYS. (Seriously, though. Even the back of this book is beautiful. Just look.) A couple of days after checking it out I bought the hardcover online. It arrived at my door 2 days later, and that’s the version I actually read. I just wanted to own this beautiful cover. Thank goodness the book lived up to the beauty.
I had been in something of a suspense funk when I started reading this, as I was having a hard time finding good, free suspense when I first began this blog. I experienced a big letdown with Simon Wood’s piece. I also discovered that, unlike most of the world, I am not a huge fan of Robert Galbraith, which intensely disappointed me (more on that to come later). But I saw this movie on the shelf at Target and, greatly drawn to Colin Firth, picked it up and read the summary. My immediate thought was, “This would make a way better book than a movie.” Luckily for me, it was a book first. (I have not yet gone back to watch the movie due to other bookworms confirming my instincts that the book was in fact better. Somebody else should watch it and break down why for me.)
S.J. Watson wrote the book in the form of a woman’s journal. Christine (our protagonist) has short-term memory loss, though at first the reader isn’t sure why, and she started keeping a diary for herself to form a collective memory. She can remember a full day until she falls asleep at night, but when she wakes each morning she finds she is in the skin of a much older version of herself than she remembers (by about 20 years). She finds the journal each day with the aid of a doctor who calls in the morning to tell her where it is hidden, but she gradually starts to remember on her own. The weird part is that she is keeping this from her husband – not only that she is writing the journal, but that she has sought out the treatment from the doctor at all. And so I enticingly read on to discover what she pieces together day after day, desperate to recall details of flittering memories that creep in and out of her mind.
The writing itself flows beautifully. Watson has a gift. This, for example, is just one sentence plucked from many: “Thoughts race, as if, in a mind devoid of memory, each idea has too much space to grow and move, to collide with others in a shower of sparks before spinning off into its own distance.” In his writing style, at no point did I feel like he was faltering or not staying true to the tone he had created. This is a book I would potentially read again not for the story but just for the adoration of his ability to put pen to paper.
The book is (obviously) in first person, and I genuinely thought the author was a woman until writing this review and finding I was extremely, extremely wrong. So good on him for making me believe otherwise. It may not seem like much, but I think the ability to convincingly take on the mind of your character in another gender, particularly a character lost and trying to find her way back to the soul of herself, is an accomplishment when the reader senses no gender ambiguity. (Part of this has to do with the fact that even the very way we learn speech is gendered, so you have to take on a wholly new speech pattern to accomplish such a task.)
Further, in terms of thematic elements, I enjoyed the way he explored the idea of memory as a self-defining trait. For some reason, this theme keeps popping up in literature I’m reading lately. I discussed that in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, the author tied the fogginess of our developmental memories to our sense of self. In Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson explores the concept of all memories and who we are without them. He states, “What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?” Watson essentially draws attenion to the fact that our memories are the entirety of ourselves, and when we lose them, what then becomes of our sense of self – or even, potentially, our sense of wholeness and humanity? He then goes on to explain the way in which we interact with our memories. “We’re constantly changing facts, rewriting history to make things easier, to make them fit in with our preferred version of events. We do it automatically. We invent memories. Without thinking. If we tell ourselves something happened often enough we start to believe it, and then we can actually remember it.”
While this idea is central to the plot, as the character can only experience any sense of memory by being told enough times, it also intertwines with the same wider concept of who we are without our memories. Eye witness testimony in a courtroom is virtually the most unreliable evidence because witnesses so rarely remember details as they actually occurred. If we are constantly distorting all of our memories in a similar fashion, and the essence of who we are is tied to memories of experience, have we subconsciously created a version of ourselves which might be vastly different were we to have actual memories rather than biased/distorted ones? I’m getting into philosophical territory at this point, but I think it brings up an altogether frightening idea: how do we know who we are, and how can we trust that we are correct when we answer that question? Perhaps the fact that this philosophy creeps in at all is part of what keeps the frightful feeling in tact while reading this book, despite the fact that very few terrifying events happen throughout it.
The writer does a good job of making the tone of the book feel like that of someone who is sick and desperate; there are no sinister overtones. And yet you can tell, not just because the book is labeled suspense, that something is off. In every question that is answered, ten more are raised, and it’s like a race to the finish line to put them all together. I read this book in under 48 hours. Not entirely uncommon for me with a suspenseful novel, but I specifically remember one Saturday blowing off all of my plans to read the rest of this book. It’s that good.
I’m also happy to report that the ending didn’t let me down. I can’t tell you why without spoiling it all, but I can tell you that if you put in the time, you won’t be disappointed. And that pep in my step in finding such a great suspense book has made me, I feel, make wiser reading choices overall. I have noticed that the current reviews I have waiting to get down on paper (the computer) are more positive than negative. (Though I’m chomping at the bit to get my review of The Circle out, and I make no promises on my tone in that one.)
I’m very impressed that this was a debut novel for this author. I haven’t read his other work because the review of it by and large is, “This book was no Before I Go to Sleep.” As a result, I think I might keep this as the only book I read by S.J. Watson. So that nothing ever tarnishes the perfection which brought me out of my suspense reading slump (or that gorgeous cover).