Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson, is a first novel that has achieved stunning success, winning awards and earning massive sales. My paperback edition is festooned with superlative-laden comments from reviews and other authors. Tess Gerritsen even goes so far as to say it is the best debut novel she has ever read – a large claim, to put it mildly.
Yet there is a minority view that the book is over-rated. Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona, wrote this critical but typically thoughtful and considered review, and others have also expressed serious doubts about the plausibility of the plot-line.
When I took this book away with me on holiday, I was aware of both the hype and the criticisms, but I wanted to read it with an open mind. It’s a novel of psychological suspense, written by a man but told from the point of view of a woman, and it sits very much in the territory marked out by the likes of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah – essentially a modern update of the “woman in jeopardy” thriller. The subject is amnesia, and the related issue of the fallibility of memory – familiar themes in crime fiction. So the basic elements are perhaps unoriginal, but I thought that Watson’s treatment of them seemed fresh and full of energy.
I was gripped by this book from start to finish. There is no doubt that there are plot flaws, many of which Maxine has pointed out, and I understand and sympathise with her reservations – which are, again characteristically, expressed in a very fair way. What is more, I think it’s absolutely reasonable to judge such a successful book by the toughest standards – tougher than those applied to less celebrated efforts, for sure.
That said, most crime novels contain elements that are, to say the least, improbable. Ultimately, a key subjective question for judgment is whether an author succeeds in overcoming the inherent unlikelihood of the material and exciting the reader. Well, I was excited, and I did want to know what was going to happen to poor old Christine and her enigmatic husband Ben. You need to suspend your disbelief when reading, but I was happy to do so.