Before I go to sleep, S.J. Watson

How do you say ‘this was utterly dreadful’ in 300 words or less because one iota of a sentence more than that would be giving this book space it doesn’t deserve?

The premise of Before I go to Sleep is utterly intriguing but the execution fails to deliver so badly that I worried about even reviewing it. A woman wakes up every day with no real recollection of the past at all. The only information she has is from photos in the bathroom and what her husband tells her. If this is not emotionally difficult enough she then finds her own diary which suggests she shouldn’t trust anything and nothing is as it seems.

An utterly brilliant premise (similar to Memento) but done and delivered quite poorly. The narrator isn’t very likeable, the story doesn’t deliver and the writing is annoying as hell.

Would I recommend it? Hell, no.


Update: voracious bibliophile Leeswammes commented to say that she loved the book and gave it 5 stars. This surprised me even though I had read her post at the time and then ironically, or rather, aptly, had forgotten all about it. Her comment has got me thinking about being more specific as to what makes me dislike Watson’s writing so much.

Part of it is the technique Watson uses of leading the reader and why. Our protagonist is a woman who has no memory and does not know who to trust. In attempting to decipher some meaning from the sparse clues around her she finds something, interprets it and then proceeds as if that is the truth. Here is an early example:

“He put his arm around my shoulder. I began to recoil, then remembered he is not a stranger but the man I married.”

There are two things about this sentence which exemplify the entire style of simplistic-but-not-in-a-clever-way type of writing:

1. That snippet “he is not a stranger but the man I married” is an obvious use of foreshadowing which reads as if it is normal but really is just a cheap narrative tool. Watson could have written it in the non-manipulative way of “then remembered he is my husband”. Some may protest, “but it is not obvious! We are reading to find out what has happened to her.” Then they roll their eyes at my daftness. I roll my eyes right back at you false-made-up-examples-which-I-have-dredged up-to-justify-my-reasoning.

I don’t know what has happened to this woman but as soon as I see a sentence such as this, which can only be part of a story as a cheap tool of foreshadowing although disguised as an ordinary fluttering thought through someone’s mind, because it is a rubbish line, I know exactly what has happened to her. Or if not exactly, then I can guess in a round-about way what we are about to find out and this is on the first day that we meet her!

The words “he is not a stranger” are blatantly untrue because at that moment when he puts his arm around her knowing she does not remember him, he is a stranger. Whether she knew him before or not, she does not know him now. And if he was her husband and there was nothing wrong, there would be no need for us to be reading this book.

The author leads the reader in a way the character wouldn’t. Take for example the following:

The protagonist is on a hill top overlooking London and discussing her past life of which she remembers practically nothing with the man who says he is her husband.

“We had a fire,” he said. “In the last place we were living.”
“A fire?”
“Yes,” he said. “Our house pretty much burned down. We lost a lot of things.”

I sighed. It did not seem fair, to have lost both my memories and my souvenirs of the past.

On first reading it may seem innocuous. Why yes, I guess it would be unfair (of what, life? but anyway, that is an aside) to lose all physical and non-physical things but hang on, isn’t that rather obvious? Does it not sound artificial to anyone else? The (implicit) assumption of such an obvious restatement of a conclusion which the reader will hopefully have reached on their own is that the reader is either too dumb or lazy to put together the sentiment on their own. I could understand this type of writing for children in primary school but this is not for that age group.

And then my second point;

2. There is a real lack of congruence between our character’s situation and her actions. I am not talking about times she fears for herself but doesn’t leave because she has nowhere to go. This would be akin to blaming domestic abuse victims. See the section in the book when her purported husband is having sex with her. No, I am talking about times she clearly feels that things aren’t right but uses language and justifications like above to convince herself that things are the way they appear to be.

I am not saying that this isn’t a normal life skill, it is. If we didn’t convince ourselves that things aren’t how they appear then we wouldn’t be in loveless relationships, hanging on to unrequited dreams, settling for a job which just isn’t working etc.

These are all part of normal life. No, I am referring to Watson’s attempt to let the reader know that things are strange but to also show that the character believes them to be something else. It is that old narrative trick where suddenly we, the readers, know more than the characters themselves do.

It is sneaky in a fun and exciting way if done right. It is that moment when the audience is let in to the secret that Niles and Daphne, after five years of unrequited love, are meant to be together after all and we go “Ooh!” but the characters walk off stage, one of them about to give up on the love of his life and the other saying yes to a wedding proposal from another man (see Frasier).

Watson does it badly. I could find a handful more things to criticise if I browsed through the book some more but I will spare you, and me, the angst and the anger. Instead I would recommend reading a brilliant author who does not need cheap narrative tricks to create something amazing. See Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which was his debut novel just as this is Watson’s.

12 responses to “Before I go to sleep, S.J. Watson”

  1. I LOVED this book! I’m planning (and looking forward) to re-read this for an on-line book club soon. How tastes can differ!

    My review (which you read at the time) is here:

    Well, on to the next book, right?

  2. How funny, Judith! I think I saw that you were going to read it which is when I heard about it and then waited to read your review until after I had done mine,

  3. Interesting. I bought this book after reading several glowing reviews (including Judith’s) but haven’t started it yet. It’ll be interesting to see which of you I agree with!

  4. I read the book (again) because of a reading club, just last week and I stand with my 5 stars.

    It’s not a perfect book, there are some things wrong with it – although I haven’t noticed any of the points you mention. They may be cheap tricks, but they work fine for a seasoned reader like me. I just got sucked up in the story and finished it in no-time. And that is a good book to me (or at least, one possible symptom of one). Afterwards I had a few doubts about certain things in the book, but the reading experience was fantastic, in my eyes.

    1. Ha :). I can’t even read it without getting annoyed. I can’t suspend disbelief in this book and I can’t let it flow. I think the writing is weak and the plot just doesn’t make up for it. I wish someone else had written it because it had a lot of potential.

      I know that Kate (Nose in a book) liked it as well but I would rather read Dan Brown than S.J Watson.

  5. What??? Rather Dan Brown? Oh no! I don’t know what got into your head, Jo, but this book is really nice. Maybe not perfect, but nice, nice!

    So, if you didn’t like this one there must be loads of other books that you don’t like for similar reasons? Is it to do with being a thriller? You don’t like thrillers in general? {flabbergasted} 🙂


      But Judith didn’t you think it was obvious? I mean I knew that it wasn’t her husband within the first few pages. The only thing remaining after that would be to see how she did it and it all read so very artificially. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the ending either. I mean how convenient for her husband and child to just go away for a bit and reappear when she needed an explanation. No. I don’t buy it.

      I love thrillers. Jo Nesbø is an incredible writer and Watson just doesn’t compare. Even Dan Brown reads more naturally to me rather than the constructed story Watson presents.

      1. *** SPOILER ***
        I wasn’t all that sure he wasn’t her husband. He could have been a husband with bad intentions. Or good intentions, as she suspect herself: to keep her from discovering all the unpleasant events in her life (her son’s death, the fire, etc.).

        The ending was too convenient, I agree with that.

  6. Ha! You see, I fall in-between you. I found it a compelling, enjoyable throwaway read, but one that falls apart if you examine it too closely. Perhaps another time I would have noticed more of the failings while I was reading but in this case I brushed them aside because I was eager to read on. I’m not sure still whether I would recommend it others. Certainly it’s not going on any of my best of lists, and it’s not an epitome of thriller writing by any stretch, but I can see why people have liked it.

    1. Actually, I do agree with you, Kate: “I found it a compelling, enjoyable throwaway read, but one that falls apart if you examine it too closely. ” And yes, I wasn’t looking too closely because I was enjoying the story.

  7. I thought it was all tell and not show and part of me was very offended that such a potentially good plot got stuck with an undeserving author. Maybe the fact that it was written during a creative writing course didn’t help the writing.

    1. I’m amused that this book has left you so angry/disappointed, etc. I mean, there are many books that are better and worse than this one. Generally this is considered a good read and I agree with that. It reads really well and the topic of memory loss is very interesting and I didn’t think the author spoiled it with this story.

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