Before I go to sleep by SJ Watson

This choice came about on the recommendation of Jacqui, who had herself come across it on a chance recommendation. It was generally considered a book that kept readers absorbed, even though the subject matter meant it couldn’t really be called an ‘easy’ read. The journals – the books within the book – were generally considered the strongest parts of the book, which elicited a majority positive reaction, although some people did wonder if it did quite live up to the hype preceding it. But that is a whole other discussion for another time.

Interestingly, the discussion of this book started with a topic that usually crops up later: how it might work as a film (which is already on the cards), and who might be cast as the central characters. Nicole Kidman as Christine was a popular choice, but the casting of Colin Firth as ‘Ben’ elicited a few ‘Noo! Mr Darcy as a villain?!’ Mark Strong was put forward as playing Dr Nash with the attitude of a ‘young man on the make’. One of the possible reasons for this subject coming up earlier than usual may have been because of the information that the author, whose debut novel this is, is thought to be involved with the screenplay, which might well be an opportunity for him to plug some of the egregious plot loopholes (discussed again later) that worked against his otherwise riveting story-telling.

This book’s interest in memory was unsurprisingly one of the central themes of the conversation. It led to discussions of friends and family members who have had to deal with memory loss, the fact that recall of short and long term memories happens differently, long term memories are often the last to go, and the different kinds of amnesia that one can be subject to. At one level, the book terrified readers (even those unfazed by more gory tales) by facing them with their greatest fear, of losing their memories: such an intrinsic part of identity. Yet, precisely because of the emotional response this topic evoked, it highlighted a giant plot hole: if sleep is what stripped Christine of her memories, why did she not become an insomniac in her panic, or at the very least, try and delay her bedtime?

At another level, the book highlights the relationship between memory and writing, and how the pursuit of the latter impacts what takes precedence in the latter: the choice of a central character who is a professional writer is an inspired narrative choice. Given how crucial a link with her memories writing provided for Christine, and a sense that even her returning memory might reconstitute the past differently than the form in which she had written them down, the loss of pages from her diary made the readers feel a sense of loss. However, here too the discussion revealed a plot hole: why is writing as a survival tactic not suggested to her earlier?

The reading group was split in whether they expected the significant plot twist at the end. (One confessed to having read the end first.) Some of those who saw it coming found their reading experience marred by being braced for a violent confrontation, that is perhaps more disturbing for being expected. (As a related aside, the visceral reactions aroused can be linked to the book’s nuanced presentation of its ‘villain’: he is seen as someone who is mentally ill, as opposed to being portrayed as unmitigatedly negative.) Others wondered if Dr Nash was related to Christine in an attempt to explain his not strictly professional behaviour. Questions about why other central characters behaved in certain ways were also asked: why, for example, did Claire not come round, or try to intervene earlier? Although Ben’s suspicions had Christine was having an affair could go some way to explain absences and lack of contact, how did 5 months elapse before anyone thought to verify Christine’s disappearance from the institution she had been committed to? How and why did everyone cram into a single ambulance?

Some of the editions had questions for discussion at the book. Although some of them related to themes the general discussion had already touched on, we worked through them.

The first question asked whether Christine’s embarking on an affair was out of character.
The general consensus was: yes, although post-natal depression and the loss of her creative imagination (a writer’s raison d’être) can be understood to put her in a perfect position for succumbing to Mike’s manipulations. She can be argued to be returning to character when she attempts to extricate herself from the relationship – thereby triggering the anger that precipitates the crisis which costs her so dearly.

Was Dr Nash professional? There was unanimous agreement that he wasn’t because he was focusing on his own career (and Christine as an interesting topic for a publication) rather than being invested in patient welfare.

Is Christine disappointed in her life, as a woman of her age? The phrasing of this question was considered unfortunate – women are not alone in second guessing their life choices from time to time. If Christine is disappointed, it is because she wakes up without any memories, nothing to orient her, no idea who to trust beyond a vague sense of disquiet.

This fed into a question asked by one of the group: can you have love without memory? It was wondered whether Christine’s unease around the person who wasn’t who he claimed to be was her body’s attempt to remind her of what her brain had forgotten – would her responses have been different with someone she trusted fully? Also, even in a non-sinister context, what does it do to the emotions of the person on the other side of this barrier: what might it be like to be the person who has been forgotten yet again, and who has to do the reminding?

On the whole, people liked that the book ended on a question (as to whether, and to what degree Christine would regain her memory), and would be interested to see how the author progresses. If he returned to this storyline, where might the sequel go?

The next title for discussion will be: Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman


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