S.J. Watson’s debut novel, “Before I Go to Sleep,” is a brilliant, nasty noir. It drags you down into deep, dark and disturbing waters. It entertains while touching on complex questions of the meaning of identity and memory.
A young woman wakes up in bed next to a man. She doesn’t know the bed. She doesn’t know the man. The woman is young and single. The man is much older.
And he’s wearing a wedding ring.
Embarrassing, at least, and socially awkward to be sure, this could be the setup of a Candace Bushnell romp, or the sequel script to “Bridesmaids.”
Things, however, soon take a sinister turn.
The young woman scurries to the bathroom, shuts the door and stares into the mirror:
“The face I see looking back at me is not my own. The hair has no volume and is cut much shorter than I wear it; the skin on the cheeks and under the chin sags; the lips are thin; the mouth turned down. I cry out,” the narrator tells us. “The person in the mirror is me, but I am twenty years too old. Twenty-five. More. This isn’t possible.”
Forget the strange bed and man. The young woman does not know who she is. She wracks her brain, searching for clues. With growing dread she realizes her mind is blank, her past a mystery.
This is life beyond mere confusion or disorientation. Watson presents a character existing in a condition of perpetual now-ness, a present without context, a life without history. It is a kind of hell —- an intellectual and emotional state devoid of meaning or emotion. It is what we fear when we fear the nothingness produced by Alzheimer’s, perhaps, or some other condition that robs one of mind and memory.
Help of sorts arrives in the form of an oddly diffident Dr. Nash.
“You have amnesia,” Dr. Nash explains. “You’ve had amnesia for a long time. You can’t retain new memories, so you’ve forgotten much of what’s happened to you for your entire adult life. Every day you wake up as if you are a young woman. Some days you wake as if you are a child.”
A neurophysiologist specializing in the relationship between the physical brain and the subjective nature of cognition, Dr. Nash encourages the woman to keep a written journal. In time she remembers her name: Christine Lucas. She recognizes the man sleeping next to her: Ben, her husband. Slowly, she begins to rebuild her past, and with it, her identity.
Yet every memory she uncovers leads to greater confusion. She suspects that she was once an author. She seems to recall having had a child.
But are these memories true or false, facts or fantasies? Dr. Nash seems reluctant to enlighten her. Her husband, infinitely understanding and patient, is evasive. What are they hiding, and why? Uncertain of who or what to believe, Christine begins to seek an elusive self, even as doing so seems to threaten her very existence.
Amnesia may be rare in real life, but it’s common enough in fiction, and for good reason. The trope allows the author to place the reader on the same plain as the character. It may be a hackneyed device, but at least it’s fair. The amnesiac narrator and reader experience the story in the same uncertain present, searching for the truth of the past and the dangers of the future.
Premises like this come cheap enough. It’s in the execution where writers either strike out or strike gold. The search for a priceless statue is a sound enough premise. But it takes a Dashiell Hammett to turn it into “The Maltese Falcon.” Raw material, no matter its potential, demands craftsmanship.
One can’t help but be impressed by Watson’s skill. This British writer’s attention to detail and empathy are impressive. No story is so compelling that it can’t survive a bad telling; no concept is so clichéd that it can’t benefit from a new, fresh and gifted voice.
Having read the book once I was compelled to read it again, enjoying the special pleasure of noting clues missed or misinterpreted the first time. Certain books are so good that they remind you of the vast pleasures good writers can give you if you’re willing to pay them attention. If you can stand the chill, “Before I Go to Sleep” is a delicious summer treat.
Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor, currently writes and produces the new television series “The Firm,” based on John Grisham’s novel, airing this fall on NBC.