Imagine waking up in an unfamiliar bed. You vaguely recall going out with friends, assume you drank too much as the previous evening is blurry. You assume you went home with a guy you don’t know too well. Things are hazy. Looking up, you see a woman’s robe and slippers. An older woman’s robe and slippers. Looking over, you see an older man in the bed. You, being a twenty-something yourself, are confused. Did you somehow get picked up by an older, married man? Sliding quietly out of the bed and into the bathroom, the mirror image shocks you: the woman in the mirror isn’t the twenty-something you remember, but an older woman with an aged face you can’t recognized. You turn, and see pictures and notes on the bathroom wall. YOUR HUSBAND. BEN. The notes explain, plastered next to photos of you and the older guy from the bed. Photos of you both over a span of what must be decades–decades missing from your memory entirely.
He’s woken up now, this older man, and he’s standing in the bathroom door. You’ve never seen him before, you are sure. “I’m Ben,” he says. “I’m your husband. You had an accident. You don’t remember. But its okay.”
This is how each day begins for Before I Go To Sleep’s Christine, who has short term memory loss. She’s unable to form new memories the way most of us recall yesterday and three days ago–only her long term memories are deeply stored in her mind, sometimes hazy and sometimes bright and flashing, causing each day to be a shock of new realizations and old grasps at reality. All new memories formed wash away as she crawls into bed and falls asleep, causing the next morning to be a repeat of the jarring scene above, as she awakens confused. Each day is a puzzle for Christine, with acquaintances made strangers, routines unknown, and endless trust placed in those around her.
That trust, so crucial for her survival, as she awakes each day in bed with a stranger who walks her through their life together, begins to erode slowly when she gets a call from a Dr. Nash. He’s been seeing her secretly, he says, without her husband Ben’s approval. He recommended she keep a journal. The journal is hidden, and he tells her where to find it. In the front of the journal, Christine reads in her own handwriting: DON’T TRUST BEN.
And thus begins the mystery of Before I Go To Sleep, a puzzle where the entire plot has been erased with Christine’s short term memory. This is the worst type of unknown, a different sort of dread and fear–rather than not knowing who waits for her down a dark hallway, Christine is unable to remember her own motives for previous actions, or her own reasons for choosing to trust or distrust those in her life. She is unable to act as her own protector, holding those around her accountable for past events. She finds herself forced to take the word of her husband and her doctor about what she has said she wanted, or needed. She frantically writes in her journal, attempting to document everything each day, as she knows she won’t be able to remember it all clearly the next.
Before I Go To Sleep has been on my to-read list for years, as it was published in 2011 and I never got around to seeking it out. I happened upon it on a clearance shelf at a bookstore, and I’m glad I picked it up. I’m the type of person who always judges and calculates the mystery as its happening, and this was one I thought I had figured out towards the middle. I was ready to dismiss the book as too simple, with glaring hints everywhere about the plot’s outcome and an overly naive narrator. Luckily, there was a twist towards the end that I hadn’t expected, and it kept me interested and renewed my faith in the book. Thrillers like this are just the right level of easy to fall into, like a warm bath that isn’t too hot. Once you are in this book, you don’t want to get out again.
It is impossible not to compare this book, or really any short term memory psychological thriller, to the 2000 movie Memento (which was inspired by a short story, “Memento Mori.”) But there is non-fiction documenting short-term memory loss as well. Before I Go To Sleep‘s author S. J. Watson was influenced by Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia by Deborah Wearing. Oliver Sacks discusses the case of an older man who believes himself to be a young sailor in his classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. Sacks says of his work with this man, in “The Lost Mariner,” “I kept wondering, in this and later notes–unscientifically–about ‘a lost soul’, and how one might establish some continuity, some roots, for he was a man without roots, or rooted only in the remote past.” Sacks recommends his lost mariner keep a diary, just as Dr. Nash recommends to Christine in Before I Go To Sleep.
This type of mystery, which explores the weaknesses and faults of the human mind, is disorienting and a bit maddening. Presenting more than just an unreliable narrator, Before I Go To Sleep reminds us how delicate and frail our perception of the world is, and how easily that view can be shattered.
If you liked Before I Go To Sleep, put these books on your to-read list: