I galloped through this pacy and taut psychological thriller in one cold and rainy day. It’s a great achievement for a first novel, which arose from the author’s participation in the first Faber Academy Writing a Novel course. The device of the narrator, Christine Lucas, having two separate streams – the present voice and the extracts from her written journal – interwoven together works brilliantly, and keeps up a terrific pace, so the reader is never quite sure of what the outcome will be. The narrator has suffered from what we’re told initially is a hit and run accident leaving her with long term memory loss, so that each day for many years now she has woken not knowing where she is or who she’s with, needing to be reminded of her past. Each morning, she’s convinced she’s a young woman, only to find she’s approaching middle age – a constant nightmare, both for her and apparently for her devoted, long-suffering husband Ben who each day afresh reminds her of his name, their joint past, their present home (which feels like an alien environment to her). The bathroom has photos of them together in much earlier and happier times, and of her separately at various points over her lifetime.
Christine’s world is being shaken up, seemingly, by the interest of a young neurologist (Dr Keen) who has recently taken a keen (ha!) interest in her case and decided to try to drag long-lost memories out of her brain’s dustier filing cabinets so that she can start again to live from day to day instead of taking each day separately. The descriptions of medical treatments aimed at retrieving her lost memories were well written, and the horror that is lying in a full scanner unable to move and clutching an alarm buzzer while being subjected to noises so loud that one can’t think was brilliantly drawn. There were plenty of clues as to which way the plot was going to twist (oh yes, there’s a big twist), often in descriptions of meals.
But I can’t help feeling disbelief that a neurologist would have involved himself to such an extent that he was driving out to collect Christine for appointments, and arranging for her to visit houses where she’d lived prior to her memory loss. What about his other patients? Were they simply put on hold? Particularly in these stretched times for the NHS, no neurologist (or other specialist) I’ve ever encountered would have the time, let alone the ability to devote so much time to a single case, no matter how fascinating.
I also felt that there was a real psychological flaw to the whole plot. I really couldn’t believe in any of the characters other than the narrator herself. I couldn’t credit that the men involved at the heart of the book would have behaved as they did, particularly over such an extended period of time. Had it been a five-year time frame from Christine’s initial accident to the present, I’d have gone along with the men’s behaviour far more readily, although clearly she would have felt considerably less shocked to be waking up each morning to see an older woman looking back at her from the bathroom mirror. But it didn’t feel credible that it would have continued for a period of around two decades. That’s at the root of the problem with this novel for me – for it to work at all from the point of Christine a long time has to have passed, but it then didn’t work from the point of view of other characters. There were also two major “accidents” which Christine survived and in both cases the details of how she’s escaped death are glossed over. So, although I greatly enjoyed Before I Go To Sleep, I did feel it had weaknesses. It felt a bit like an old-fashioned Chinese take-away meal of a book to me – very enjoyable at the time of consumption but afterwards rather unsatisfactory.
Rating: 3 stars
(Before I Go To Sleep has now been made into a film starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong as Christine, Ben and Dr Keen.)