What are we, if not the sum total of our memories?
Whether for good or bad, everything we’ve done, seen, and experienced to this point has had a hand in shaping who we are. It’s not just the “juicy” bits that matter, either, such as how our recollections of those historic “firsts” (first kiss, first time going to a funeral, first time having sex, first time getting really drunk, first time falling in love, etc.) may have affected our future actions. Rather, it’s the memories of all the mundane stuff--our everyday interactions with others, the patterns and routines we take for granted--which play the biggest role in filling in the details, making us “us”.
But what would happen if we didn’t have that built-in store of experiential memories, of things big and small accomplished and lessons learned, guiding us? How would the absence of things remembered affect how we see ourselves... and what havoc would it play with our sense of reality, and sanity?
These are the questions asked in S.J. Watson’s quietly-explosive debut, Before I Go to Sleep...
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Just like the rest of us, Christine Lucas wakes to pretty much the same routine every morning. She gets up, has breakfast, dresses herself, then goes about her various chores and tasks for the day.
That’s where the similarities come to an abrupt stop, though, because unlike the rest of us, when Christine wakes up in the morning, she has no idea who she is or how she got there.
Oh, she knows how to do certain things. She can find the closet and pick out something to wear, she knows how to put on makeup, and she can cook and clean and take care of the basics. What she can’t do is recognize the face of the man lying in bed next to her each morning (that would be her husband). Nor does she recognize herself when she looks in the bathroom mirror; the reflection looks much, much older than she thinks it ought. The house, the furnishings, her clothes and jewelry? None of it is familiar to her. Her past--her childhood, teenage years, adulthood? A blank slate.
Are these the tragic results of serious drug abuse? Perhaps signs of early-onset dementia? No... but it has been Christine’s way of life for the past eighteen years, now, and with the dawn of each new day, she is frustrated all over again, saying:
“All I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things.”
Christine’s day goes something like this (and remember that this is ANY day. EVERY day.): After getting out of bed and finding her way to the bathroom (because that, at least, is universal behavior), she’s greeted by a collection of photos, tacked to the perimeter of the mirror. They hold a sampling of her own history--shots of her in college, dating her (now-)husband Ben, out with friends, on vacations, etc.--and they aren’t meant to remind her of the past she can’t recall, but rather to re-teach it to her anew each morning. During the uneasy breakfast which follows (with the attractive stranger who has assured her that he is, indeed, her long-wed partner, despite the fact she remembers nothing whatsoever about him), Ben proceeds to fill in some of the blanks, including the all-important “how did this happen?!” (which he explains as the freakish result of a hit-&-run accident). When he finally heads off to work, he leaves behind a scrapbook (full of more photos), his emergency number programmed into a cellphone, and a list of suggestions for things she might do that day (simple household tasks such as “do laundry” or “unload dishwasher”, by and large, since she would have no idea where she was to go out and do anything outside of the house). And after all that, she does... well, she can only guess what she typically does to fill up the remainder of the day and night, because by the time she’s woken up the next morning, every bit of her memory--including whatever took place the preceding day--has been wiped away once more.
Nearly twenty years go by like that... until one day, she gets a call on a cellphone she finds hidden in her purse. This isn’t the phone Ben gave her... and the voice on the other end isn’t his. It’s someone claiming to be her psychiatrist, Dr. Nash, calling her with a reminder of their weekly session.
Christine is utterly discombobulated, but when the voice tells her to look up their appointment in the diary she carries in her purse--and she proceeds to find the diary and then the notation, just as he said (“Nov. 30th, seeing Dr. Nash”)--she agrees to meet with him. (She’s rather more troubled by the second line of the note--the part she doesn’t recite to the doctor when she finds it, which reads, “Don’t tell Ben”--but keeps that to herself.)
Dr. Nash explains that they’ve been meeting once or twice each week for the past several weeks. He’s a neuropsychologist who specializes in memory loss, and as her particular type of amnesia is extremely rare, she makes an especially-interesting subject for him to study.
And they have, it turns out, been making some progress. Dr. Nash has persuaded Christine to keep a journal; she writes in it following their sessions, then hides it away before she goes to bed at night. Dr. Nash then calls her the next day, explains all over again who he is and where her journal is, after which she rereads everything she’s already written... and by so doing, “learns” all that has gone on over the past couple of weeks (rather than just what Ben told her, yet again, before leaving for work that morning).
Much of what she reads in the journal is, of course, just a rehash of what Ben had said only an hour or two before... but not everything. As the weeks pass, she notices a few inconsistencies. Sometimes, the story Ben tells her isn’t quite the same as other times. And every once in awhile, he lets something slip, answering a question he typically sidesteps--something which he doesn’t have to worry about beyond the next few hours, since he knows she won’t remember it past falling asleep that night. (That would still be the case, too, were it not for her secret journal... and the fact that some of her memories are, very gradually, starting to come back to her.)
But, it’s only when she digs out her journal one morning following Dr. Nash’s call and finds the words “DON’T TRUST BEN” written in bold letters in her handwriting, that she’s truly frightened. It was one thing to keep the sessions a secret, but why isn’t she supposed to trust him, this man who is devoted to her and has stood by her through so much? Why has he lied about certain things--to protect her from some incredibly-painful knowledge, which will hit her with all the force of fresh, horribly-tragic news each time he tells her... or because he’s trying to keep something hidden from her? And, what part does Dr. Nash play in everything--well-meaning doctor, callous researcher, or scoundrel with nefarious intentions?
As yet more conflicts arise between the life she lives each day, the accounts she reads in her journal, and her spotty memories that go in and out, Christine’s greatest fear is that she--and that all-important journal--will be found out before she figures out what, exactly, is going on. The one thing she’s sure of is that her life hinges on keeping that secret...
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Before I Go to Sleep is the rare books that works brilliantly on multiple levels. Above all, it’s chockfull of gut-clenching, heart-pounding terror; the idea that anything could happen to you, or you could be told anything, or forced to do anything--but would be completely unable to remember any of it the very next day--boggles the mind with horrible possibilities. As we watch things unfold through Christine’s eyes, figuring out only slightly more than she does, we can do naught but cringe in anticipation of what evil showdown is surely to come.
This is also an intimate psychological portrait of a woman in crisis. Christine is a completely sympathetic character; now middle-aged, she’s no one special or famous, just a normal woman with a job and family, going through all the regular ups and downs, who finds herself suddenly, inexplicably in the middle of a horrific set of events... which she has, apparently, been in for a very long time, already. Her first-person narrative of waking up, clueless, is harrowing... and her gradual realizations and later, her regained memories, make the experience that much more chilling.
But it’s the little observations, particularly about aging, which manage to pack the surprisingly-hefty emotional wallops, here. Christine’s daily struggle with meeting her 47-year-old self--and finding it so different from the 29-year-old self she vaguely recalls, with its smoother skin, thicker hair, fewer lines, and lack of saggy anything--is particularly affecting, and the fact that she goes through it again and again? It just hurts.
I really hated putting Before I Go to Sleep down. I hated putting it down to go do some actual work, I hated setting it aside when my eyes refused to stay open any longer (regardless how much caffeine I was pumping in my system)... and I hated reaching the last page, when the journey came to an end. This one’s a Must-Read, folks.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mousies!