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Friday, December 23, 2011

What I'm Reading: Before I Go to Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson is on many year-end best lists.  Not only is it a well received novel in the press, among the BPL staff it was a favorite too.  Just about everyone on staff has read it, and we have yet to have someone dislike it.  And the interesting thing about it is, we all have a different reason for liking it.  Which just goes to prove one of my 10 Rules of Basic RA Service: "Everyone reads a different version of the same book."
I believe that Before I Go To Sleep is so popular for two key reasons.  First, it is a classic psychological suspense thriller which moves quickly but is also extremely thought provoking.  Second, it manages to be chilling, suspenseful, and compelling with little to no sex or violence.  It is simply an engrossing story which uses its narrative (not sex and violence) to keep you engaged and on the edge of your seat.  As a result, it is a great choice for a wide range of readers.

I have talked about the power of good psychological suspense in the past; in fact, if you click here you can read my dirty little secret about psychological suspense (hint is has to do with where it ranks in my heart next to horror). 
For the uninitiated though, here is a quick primer on psychological suspense. The term refers to books which put an uneasy atmosphere at the forefront, producing a chill in the reader; however, as opposed to horror, the fear and anxiety comes from very real sources because  the monsters in psychological suspense are flesh and blood individuals who are frighteningly real, not speculative. These are books filled with serial killers, stalkers, and evil masterminds. They play with the psyches of their victims and the reader. Tension in these novels builds, the atmosphere is nightmarish, the chills do not let up, and the plot resolutions are disturbing and unclear. These are fairly literary novels filled with darkness, plot twists, and obsession.

Okay now let me move to the details of Before I Go to Sleep.

Christine is a middle aged woman who has a condition which causes her to wake up every single morning without knowing who she is.  Her memory is blank before her 20s.  She must start fresh each day.  Her husband, Ben, is there to help her restart each morning, but as our book begins, it appears that Christine has been meeting secretly with a doctor who has asked her to keep a journal.  He calls her each morning to remind her to read it.  There is just one problem.  The very first page of the book says "DON'T TRUST BEN!"

The book takes place entirely from Christine's point of view.  We, the reader, only know what she knows, but we also know her knowledge is shaky at best.  We read through her journal with her.  Along with her, we also become increasingly uneasy, anxious, and paranoid.  Who should we trust (we being the reader and Christine)?

In fact, this is what Watson does most brilliantly.  His writing dissolves the line between the reader and Christine.  It is hard to believe this is the British scientist's first novel.  As a reader, it is as if the story is happening to you.  And things are going from bad to worse very quickly.  Or are they?  Is Christine correct in her paranoia or is it all part of her condition? This drives the suspense. 

Beyond the chills and a plot that starts to spiral out of control, Before I Go to Sleep is an extremely thought provoking and philosophical novel. When I could tear myself away from the book's action and stop compulsively turning the pages late into the night, I found myself thinking about how one lives a life with Christine's condition.  What does it mean to live if you begin each day with a blank slate?  What is identity?

Finally, the best thing about Before I Go to Sleep is the ending.  Well, let me back up a bit.  The pages leading up to the ending are a little too neat, but the final lines are perfect.  Everything is resolved for the reader, but it is the end of the day.  Christine will go to sleep.  What will happen the next morning when she awakes?  That answer is up to the reader.

Three Words That Describe This Book: disturbing, engrossing, psychological

Readalikes:  In July, Alice LaPlante released Turn of Mind, which is very similar to Before I Go to Sleep.  Here is the summary from NoveList:
Implicated in the murder of her best friend, Jennifer White, a brilliant retired surgeon with dementia, struggles with fractured memories of their complex relationship and wonders if she actually committed the crime.
There are also a few other psychological suspense novels where people are held against their will (with or without their knowledge).  Room by Emma Donoghue is an excellent example here. Also Still Missing by Chevy Stevens.  In fact, Stevens is a great example of a newer voice in the psychological suspense arena, although I should note that her books are more explicit.

A few other titles which remind me of Before I Go to Sleep in terms of the intense psychological strain which is inflicted upon the protagonist and, as a result, the reader, are Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

Readers who like the very best of what psychological suspense has to offer, click here to see every post where I talk about psychological suspense and/or review a book which fits in that category.

As I recently said here:
Some of my favorite recent psychological suspense novels include, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, and  by Alden Bell.  All of the links here go back to reviews I have written about each novel.  For more on their specific appeal, click on the titles.
I also created this tri-fold brochure on the genre for the BPL.  It has many other suggestions although admittedly, it is due for an update.

Tomorrow, I will have a very special Christmas Eve post and then nothing until 12/27.


Citizen Reader said...

Hi Becky!
I just had to chime in as one vote for NOT liking this book (although I'm counting it as 2 votes because my husband, who reads a lot more fiction than I do, also didn't care much for it). It was okay but I thought it would be better. Great expectations get me every time!

Happy holidays!

Cari said...

Our entire staff has loved this book, too - and we have a variety of readers who like different things. It's amazing. And no one can ever recommend it because it's always checked out!!

Becky said...

Sarah, are you guys Psychological Suspense fans in general? If not, this book is a bad choice.

Citizen Reader said...

Well, Becky, that's a good question. I can't say Mr. CR is a huge reader of it, but I'd answer your question by saying I'm a fan of any genre when it's done well. I just thought this one had too many gaping plot holes to be considered "good" suspense. I DO enjoy suspense more than thrillers, that's true. My favorite part of not liking this book was that, when I posted about it, lots of readers suggested titles they thought were better, which I appreciated.