In S.J. Watson’s debut thriller, Before I Go to Sleep (Harper, June 14), Christine doesn’t have trouble sleeping. She just can’t remember anything when she wakes up. Every morning, her memory reboots and she has to relearn everything about her life, the strange man in her bed, and how she arrived at this condition. At her therapist’s suggestion, she starts recording details in a secret journal, and finds that the people around her may not be telling her the whole truth, if any at all. Worse yet, what she doesn’t know could definitely hurt or even kill her.
Amnesia seems to be the theme du jour this summer; Sleep is the first of three books I’ll review over the next week in which memory loss plays a key role. It’s also the most claustrophobic. The scope of Christine’s fractured mind is already small; it threatens to completely close in on her every night. Watson’s use of first person present tense (her journal entries are in past tense) traps the reader along with Christine in a shifting and shifty world in which a feeling of menace lurks. Her reality changes from day to day, and the only person she can fully trust is herself, but even that is questionable considering her mental state. If she could, Christine would probably say to Ingrid Bergman’s character in Gaslight, “You think you have problems?”
The only slight downside for me was being able to figure out what was going on about two thirds into the book. I wasn’t trying to spoil the fun for myself, mind you; Christine doesn’t get out much or meet many people so this limits the number of possible conclusions. But I didn’t have all the answers and Watson kept me pinned until I did. When I awoke the next morning, the memory of this book was still with me, and it will probably linger in your mind, too, after you put it to bed.
Nerd verdict: Anxiety-laced Sleep will keep you awake