Monday, 13 February 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

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.

10 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thank you for your comments on this one. I keep going back and forth about this myself for reasons you've outlined quite effectively here. Like you, I'm willing to suspend disbelief if I'm carried away by the plot or really find the characters appealing. I'm glad you found that kind of situation with this so that you found the book enjoyable. I may read it and simply judge for myself...

Maxine said...

I think that this is one of those books that one "has" to finish reading once started, to find out what on earth is going to happen and what is at the heart of it. I was as keen as anyone to find out. For me, though, the "twist" was anything but - compare with eg Ira Levin and it's silly.

I also think that this is one of those books that the more you think about it afterwards, the more you realise it just does not work, in details and in a big-picture sense. And then one feels a bit of a fool for having been "taken in", perhaps!


He's selling very well and good luck to him, I just think it is a pity that this book has so overwhelmed others published that year which I think better "minor suspsense" novels, eg Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes - just check out her Amazon reviews. This book is more along the lines of "is she mad or not" than memory loss, but it has the similar "can the reader believe the protagonist" type of atmosphere.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Although I felt it lost energy toward the end, when you began to see what was afoot, it was very exciting for most of it--and can you really ask for more than that.

Maxine said...

PS I should have mentioned that my review was not as negative as Bernadette's opinion, to which I link in my post. And there are more than a few disappointed (rational) Amazon reviews. So I'm not alone in being underwhelmed by this book, though clearly in a minority, which is not an unusual position for me to be in!

Kerrie said...

I thought it was a difficult plot for the author to sustain Martin, and that she achieved it fairly well. Amnesia/Alzheimer's is something those of us who are getting older fear in the back of our minds although in this case amnesia happened to Christine very young. You do read wanting desperately to find a happy ending don't you? My review is here.

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for these comments and such a fair-minded debate on a book that's very interesting, and a subject (how to respond to a bestseller that has great merits but also flaws) that is perhaps more interesting still.
I haven't read the Haynes book, Maxine, but I'm very glad of the recommendation and it's one I'll look out for.
Ira Levin - now there is one of my favourite writers. I don't think I've ever covered him on this blog. Yet another omission I ought to make good...

Maxine said...

Just to add, if I may, that this book is not about Alzheimer's. If one wants to read a brilliant book on that topic, Alice LaPlante's Turn of Mind is one I cannot recommend too highly - in a different league to BIGTS. For example it won the prestigious Science Book Prize last year - the first novel to do so - and has won other awards.

The memory loss in Christine's case is caused by an external event described quite late on in the book. As mentioned in my review, BIGTS could have been fleshed out a bit by a bit more neurology, or layperson's examination of the condition, but this isn't what the author sets out to do (cf the protagonist's (name forgotten) seeking professional help in Into the Darkest Corner (which isn't a great book by any means, but a "neat little suspense thriller" - unpretentious).

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Maxine.The LaPlante book sounds very interesting indeed.

Kerrie said...

I agree with Maxine that the book is about amnesia not Alzheimers but the latter is the point where memory loss, or rather the possibility of it, worries many of my generation, friends and family. So we find any book that explores amnesia of interest.

My nephew has had a brain tumour for the last 20 years and one of the effects, because of where it is sited, is frequent short term memory loss. The family has got used to riding that wave, that he will just not remember what he did yesterday, or what you told him a few days ago, or what you were talking about just minutes ago.

Brasil said...

This is the story of an amnestic woman named Christine who wakes up every day with virtually no memories of her life and forced to relearn her circumstances over the course of each day, only to lose them again and start all over after she falls asleep at night. As if that weren't bad enough, there's also a terrible secret lurking under the surface of her supposedly normal, mundane married life.

Although the premise is not particularly original, it drew me in and made me want to read this story. Much of it is repetitive as Christine reads her journal entries and adds to them each day, but it didn't bore me because it emphasized the quandary she was in as the unreliable narrator who doesn't know if she can trust her husband, her doctor, her friend, or even herself. Who wouldn't be upset and confused in her situation? I found that aspect of the story believable. Unfortunately, there are quite a few plot holes that took away some of my enjoyment. If the author could have found a way to close some of those gaps, the whole story would have been a little tighter and more believable.