Bringing Me Out of My Suspenseful Slump – Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson

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.

Before I Go to Sleep, SJ watson, book review, movie

Front Cover (instagram.com/free_read_and_write)

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.

Before I Go to Sleep, SJ Watson, book review, cover, movie

Back Cover

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.) Before I go to sleep, movie, SJ watson, movie cover, book review

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.

Before I Go to Sleep, Instagram, Free Read and Write, SJ Watson, Book Review, movie

Instagram.com/free_read_and_write

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).

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9 thoughts on “Bringing Me Out of My Suspenseful Slump – Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson

  1. Bridget says:

    I too thought Watson was a woman right up until I read his bio on the back flap of his new book, Second Life, after finishing it! I thought almost exactly what you’ve been hearing about it—it’s no Before I Go to Sleep—but it was still decent. I’d say 3 stars to Before I Go to Sleep‘s 4 stars. I think part of this is due to the fact that I found this narration (also first-person, female narration) less believable, although those feelings came up more after I realized Watson was a man.

    It’s strange how finding out that the gender of the author is the opposite of what you thought changes your perspective on a book. Thinking it was coming from a woman, the narration of Second Life seemed raw and honest, if a bit melodramatic. Knowing now that it came from a man, it almost seems misogynistic. And then I wonder why it matters? Or if it matters? Or if I’m a terrible person because I liked the book better/felt it was “truer” when I thought the author was female? Quandaries.

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    • Free (Read and) Write says:

      Seriously, this might be my favorite comment I’ve ever gotten. It’s so true how much perception changes us! And is that bad or possibly a GOOD thing? I wonder if I would have loved Before I Go to Sleep as much if I had known he was male? And why is he writing exclusively in the female voice?

      I would be interested to hear more about the book’s plot that made your jump to misogyny. As women, we are trained on the details and constantly told we are crazy after being socialized as the “emotional” gender. If a woman was writing that experience, I could easily see it seeming raw, whereas if it came from a man, would I think he was trying to make some statement about women as overly emotional and whiny?

      Another thing I have pondered is given our completely different experiences in gender, and the intersections of lack of privilege, would I feel the same if someone was writing about complete poverty or a different racial experience? Yeah. Maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bridget says:

        The thing that kind of got to me about the plot is that it’s basically about a woman who, in an attempt to find out who killed her sister, makes an account on the same dating site to see if she can find/talk to some of the same people who her sister had been chatting with, because she suspects that one of these men might have killed her sister.

        The main character/narrator ends up falling into an online and soon real-life romance with a guy she meets on the site, cheating on her husband and becoming pretty reckless in the process. And all the while she pretty much waves it away as “I couldn’t help it.”

        Did you ever read As I Lay Dying? Every single one of Dewey Dell’s chapters (one of the few main female characters) centers around how she “couldn’t help it (i.e. whatever got her into trouble this time).” It reminded me a lot of that. Even though she was the main character, she seemed to have no agency whatsoever. She was also a former alcoholic and heroin addict.

        Now, having thought it was written from a woman’s perspective, it seemed, like I said, raw, emotional, and honest—I mean, I’ve never been an addict so I guess I can’t really say, but it seemed genuine. Now, though, knowing it was written by a man…it kinda skeeves me a little bit, honestly. Like, oh, this poor little woman who married the “safe,” well-to-do husband who helped her out of addiction just doesn’t think it’s enough so now she has this affair with a potentially dangerous stranger all so she can feel desired again.

        As a woman, I can totally see how that would happen. It’s obviously not unheard of for bored housewives to seek pleasure elsewhere. But for a guy to purposely write a female character like that, particularly one from whose first-person perspective he’s writing, gets to me. It wouldn’t even have been as bad if it had been third-person limited, but the fact that he was literally *in her head* just made me wonder…what makes you think you know enough about how women think to write this character from this perspective?

        I actually mentioned this to my husband last night when I finished the book and he asked me if I would feel the same about a male character written from a female perspective. In some ways, yes I would, but when I think about it, I can’t really think of many first-person male character narrations I’ve read that were written by women (that I enjoyed, anyway—thinking of Tobias from the Divergent series and whatever-his-name-was from Matched). The big one, obviously, is Harry Potter, but since that was third-person limited it doesn’t seem as…egregious to me. You know? Maybe I’m not making any sense.

        I’ve also contemplated your point about poverty and race and I don’t honestly know, but I’m reasonably certain that at least in this day and age we’d hear a lot about it from people of color and people of lower incomes who feel they weren’t represented well or correctly by, say, a well-off white writer. But I also feel like we’re sort of caught in a dilemma here because we want characters to be diverse and yet we also want that diversity to be genuine. This obviously means we should read diverse authors, surely, but I feel like it’s sort of demanding to have our cake and eat it too when we ask authors to write diverse characters. If I was a writer, I would want to include racial and LGBTQ diversity in my stories, but I’m sure I’d manage to offend someone…but I’d also be offensive by keeping my characters white and straight, which, in my defense, is all I know. Obviously there can be research done, but I’ve also heard people complaining that writing/singing/whatever about people of color or LGBTQ people or what-have-you should be left to those particular communities (see Macklemore getting crap for “Same Love” because there are LGBTQ rappers who have been singing about that stuff for years and have been ignored).

        So…that was longer than I meant it to be, sorry. But there’s so much to think about when we start talking about diversity and privilege in writing! Thanks for the awesome response and for the compliment. 🙂

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      • Free (Read and) Write says:

        Here’s the difference about a female writing in a male voice and vice versa: which way you’re sliding on the privilege and stereotypes scale. I think that makes a difference. I don’t think you can ask, “would you feel the same way if a woman wrote something about a man…” Bc men don’t really have oppressive stereotypes about them. When a man perpetuates those oppressive stereotypes of women, rather than women expressing said experience of living within those stereotypes. It completely changes potential underlying meaning and possible intent, or even maybe changes what we believe the perception of the writer is.

        I thought about this when I reviewed Molokai, too. He wrote in a female voice but not very stereotypically. He also wrote as a native Hawaiian and I wondered if anyone thought he was appropriating culture. You’re right about the need for diversity of characters, but what really made me bring race into the mix was thinking about The Help. Even though that writer was speaking about her experiences, when she took on the voice of black characters I know a lot of minorities in the U.S. were beyond pissed.

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      • Bridget says:

        PS—I’ve been thinking about this conversation a lot and I think I want to write more in-depth about it. Would you mind if I cited your post/this conversation? 🙂

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      • Bridget says:

        Just wanted to give you a heads up that I FINALLY wrote that post—it’s going up at Insatiable Booksluts on Friday. I linked your blog post so that you’ll get a ping when it goes up. Would love to hear what you think 🙂

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  2. Lee says:

    I also thought the author was a woman, ha! I was actually so convinced that I referred to Watson as a “she” in a short GoodReads review I wrote on this novel. The worst bit is that I only realised my mistake several months after having posted it. Embarrassing!

    I love your reviews BTW 🙂

    Like

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