We invent memories without thinking

Before I Go to Sleep
by S J Watson

I think this may be one of those books that is best not analysed. While reading it I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, was gripped even, but since putting it down I have been picking it apart.

The story is that of Christine who has an unusual form of amnesia whereby she is only able to retain new memories until she falls asleep, so each morning she wakes up not knowing where she is or who the man lying next to her is. Every day this man must explain that he is her husband Ben and that she is 47 years old, not in her early 20s as she feels. The novel begins with her meeting a doctor who gives her a journal he says she has been keeping. On the first page is written “Don’t trust Ben”. And so begins a rollercoaster ride of paranoia and uncertainty.

“The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”

The writing is simple, effective and without flourish. I did not mark any notable quotes while reading but I didn’t cringe at anything either. It’s a thriller that does its job and does not try to be any more than that. Which is fair enough. And I was hooked while it lasted.

“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.”

But when it ended I began spotting plot holes, mostly relating to the ending, so I won’t discuss them. One failing is that the majority of the book is supposed to be Christine’s journal, but it doesn’t read like a journal at all. Another failing is, I suppose, a product of the amnesia plot device: Christine has no real character and all the people she meets essentially seem the same to her – friendly-seeming but potentially lying and therefore slightly creepy.

There are some criticisms I have heard from elsewhere that I don’t agree with. While the form of Christine’s amnesia seems too good to be true for a thriller writer, it is actually based on real-life cases (the author’s bio says rather vaguely that he worked for the NHS). And a few people said they guessed the end and were therefore disappointed. While the ending was one possibility that occurred to me early on, it wasn’t the only one. I probably won’t re-read this, but it was a good read at the time.

Published 2011 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld.

2 thoughts on “We invent memories without thinking

  1. Judith November 5, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I feel the same, actually. The reading experience was fantastic but when you start thinking about it more, the plot crumbles slightly.

    I re-read this book because a Dutch Twitter reading group was discussing it last night. More and more things came up that didn’t seem quite right, dead ends, etc.

    But even so, it was a good read and I found it really interesting to find out about amnesia and living with amnesia.

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