Review: Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

by Fiona Rae / 23 March, 2012
Our reviewer’s verdict on the first selection of the Listener Book Club.
We think therefore we are, but it’s through our memories that we live. The prospect of losing yourself has been a source of both fascination and terror since the lotus-eaters threatened to distract Odysseus from his homeward voyage. Is forgetting a tragedy or a kind of release from loss, sorrow and the banal irritations of everyday life?

For Christine Lucas, the North London protagonist of SJ Watson’s debut, Before I Go to Sleep, 20 years of anterograde amnesia has been anything but the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind. To have a 28-year-old mind in a middle-aged body and wake up next to a married stranger is pure bedroom farce; the journal that warns Christine not to trust her apparently loving husband is not. Nor is a vaguely creepy doctor with an agenda of his own. In the time-honoured tradition of the woman-in-peril novel, trouble – like misery – loves company. Nobody is quite what they appear to be, nothing is entirely true, and you can generally tell if someone’s lying because their lips are moving.

The jacket blurbs alone boast an impressive roster of A-list popular crime writers, and the all-important film rights have been snapped up by Ridley Scott. There’s the rub: if you read a lot of crime fiction, this should sound awfully familiar. Watson’s prose and characterisation are serviceable, even if the fashionably clipped sentences­ can become monotonous. Closer editing would have caught some distractingly repetitive turns of phrase and pruned overworked adjectives.

Watson’s medical background keeps Christine’s amnesia – and the “islands of memory” that give her cause to doubt herself – within the bounds of plausibility, but sadly Sleep doesn’t avoid all the snares of the first book.

Three-quarters of the novel is Christine’s journal. I wasn’t convinced I was hearing the voice of a woman, let alone one in escalating fear for her life, which is something you can’t fudge in a first-person narrative. Watson scrupulously plays fair as he unpicks the tangled web surrounding our heroine, until the denouement. The last section turns on a character’s opportune inattention – after being surreally observant for the previous 300 pages – so the last piece of the puzzle can be uncovered. It was a cheat I couldn’t forgive or forget.

Before I Go to Sleep is still a slickly readable trip across familiar ground that leaves me looking forward to Watson’s second novel. I just hope the manuscript spends a longer stretch in the custody of a good editor.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, by SJ Watson (Text, $19.95).

Craig Ranapia writes about culture in the Muse blog at Public Address.

Click here to read our interview with author SJ Watson.

Click here to read the Book Club discussion about Before I Go to Sleep.


You can still join the conversation about Before I Go to Sleep. Visit the Book Club section at, as well as our Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter at @nzlbookclub. Next month's book is LOOK AT ME (Corsair, $24.99), a recently reissued 2001 novel by Jennifer Egan, whose A Visit from the Goon Squad won last year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Join us here in the magazine and online from April 6, when an interview with Egan kicks off the month's discussion of the book.
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