Thursday, October 20, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep, by SJ Watson

As I recall, I reached for this novel after reading an effusive review somewhere or other.  "Quite simply the best debut novel I've ever read," gushes Tess Gerritsen on the book's cover.  Generally, books and films about amnesiacs don't appeal to me. I have limited patience for the idea of a protagonist who remembers none of his life history, or who wakes up with no clue who he is.  Something in the review suggested that this novel might have more depth, might raise some questions about the meaning of identity, consciousness and value of memory.

Another reviewer drawled that Ms. Gerritsen must not read many debut novels, since Before I Go to Sleep has stiff competition in that category, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, Frankenstein...  Publicists are an influential lot, and many novels get more hype than they deserve, but this is not at all a bad book. It's got flaws, but if I were SJ Watson, I'd be pretty chuffed about having written it.

As the story opens, Christine wakes up in a strange place, in bed with a strange man. Her first thought is that she had been to one hell of a wild party the night before. When she sees her face in the bathroom mirror, though, she panics. She's twenty years older than she'd thought. The man shuffles in and says he's Ben, her husband of many years. Since a head injury, Christine's memory lasts from waking til sleep. The next morning, she remembers nothing of the years before.  A psychiatrist has contacted her and suggested that she begin keeping a journal to record the day's thoughts and events. She keeps this journal and her visits to the doctor secret from her husband, as it seems he's despaired of ever finding a cure for her amnesia, and he claims that medical attention just agitates and upsets her. And what can she say? She can't remember anything from one day to the next. Each morning the psychiatrist phones her and reminds her to look for her journal, hidden in a shoebox. Each day, she reads the previous days' entries and carries on, building a written history for herself.

As with anything committed to paper, inconsistencies now become apparent. Although she doesn't remember what her husband told her yesterday or last week, she can now read what he said. Why did you tell me that we have no children? she demands after learning (and writing down) that they had a son together. Because he died in Afghanistan, and the conversation just upsets you every time, he replies, quite reasonably. Of course it would also hurt him to have to repeat the story of their son's life and death every day, too, so he's lied to spare them both daily grief. It seems reasonable enough to Christine. But as she accumulates a store of written memories, she becomes ever more driven to recover from her disorder. She needs to remember more, to understand flashes of older memories that come to her as her brain is newly stimulated. Because Christine cannot form any contiguous history with people -- her husband, the psychiatrist, her best friend -- it's extremely difficult to know whether or not she can trust them. I think about how we develop trust, or distrust for that matter. It's almost always a cumulative thing. A friend acts in a consistently honest way over the years; a colleague undermines you at work every few months. When your memory lasts about 16 hours, there is no such thing as cumulative trust. The sense of vulnerability I felt for Christine was staggering.

Trust isn't the only thing that's cumulative. Knowledge, wisdom...  In a frustrated outburst, Christine reacts against her husband's pleas to just relax and let him care for her. Doesn't she have everything she needs and wants, after all? No, she does not.
What 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. There, in the bathroom, I thought of my old age. I tried to imagine what it will be like. Will I still wake up, in my seventies or eighties, thinking myself to be at the beginning of my life? Will I wake with no idea that my bones are old, my joints stiff and heavy? I can’t imagine how I will cope, when I discover that my life is behind me, has already happened, and I have nothing to show for it. No treasure house of recollection, no wealth of experience, no accumulated wisdom to pass on. What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?
Many self-help gurus tell us that we should live fully in the present. We spend too much of our time dwelling on the past and dreaming of the future while the present moment slips away unnoticed. Be like animals, they tell us:  does a dog spend hours reminiscing about chew toys of the past? Does a duck swim around fretting about its old age? I don't dispute this idea in the least, but Christine's circumstances suggest that neurological erasure of the past is not a desirable state. Past and future may be illusory to a certain extent, but they do exist for us. Christine's life without them is far from serene.
'This is like dying every day. Over and over. I need to get better,’ I said. ‘I can’t imagine going on like this for much longer. I know I’ll go to sleep tonight and then tomorrow I will wake up and not know anything again, and the next day, and the day after that, for ever. I can’t imagine it. I can’t face it. It’s not life, it’s just an existence, jumping from one moment to the next with no idea of the past, and no plan for the future. It’s how I imagine animals must be. The worst thing is that I don’t even know what I don’t know. There might be lots of things, waiting to hurt me. Things I haven’t even dreamed about yet.’
This novel is a psychological thriller; although suspense kept me turning the pages, I found the philosophical questions more engaging. Several aspects of the plot begged credulity. A very literal reader would likely complain that there were too many gaps in plausibility. I'm willing to suspend disbelief if there's some deeper understanding on the other side. If SJ Watson had to behave like a manic puppeteer to get all the characters where he needed them, I can accept that, because Christine's experience made me sit back and think about aspects of my own psyche that I take for granted. Most of us do take memory for granted. Good memories, bad ones... we'd like to cherish the former and jettison the latter, we lose and retain some of each. Why? Would our lives be different if we'd retained different memories? After reading Before I Go to Sleep, I'm happy to retain any memories.

Older people who suffer senile dementia often return to their childhoods. They may look at their adult children and believe they're seeing their own parents. These folks seem happy and joyful in a childlike way. They don't remember that they've forgotten. Amnesia is different. The amnesiac is painfully aware of the memory loss, just as an amputee feels phantom pains in his missing limb. SJ Watson made Christine's anguish palpable. It's hard to form a connection to a character who has such a tenuous connection to herself, but he pulled it off. I was always rooting for Christine. I'm also rooting for Mr. Watson. I hope he writes another novel.

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