Before I Go to Sleep (the book, not the movie)

It’s obvious that author S.J. Watson had seen the movie Memento before writing his first novel, Before I Go to Sleep. What isn’t obvious (at least to me) was that a mediocre movie of the same title was made from the novel. That was news to me.

So, if the movie isn’t worth seeing—and “they” say it isn’t, despite starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth—is the novel worth reading? The answer is an equivocal yes, i.e. a yes with reservations. The concept is interesting, even if it’s derivative from Memento. The writing is engaging, keeping me wondering what will happen next. Some readers were bothered by the repetitiveness from day to day, but that’s part of the point: the protagonist, Christine, has both types of amnesia (retrograde and anterograde) and wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is and what happened the day before, not to mention the decades before. So she leaves notes for herself to substitute for memory. This, of course, leads to some intriguing philosophical speculations about the role of memory in securing one’s identity: who am I if I can’t remember my past?

I have some questions about the movie adaptation, despite (or because of) not having seen it. They changed the note-writing to videos: the doctor gave Christine a video camera in the film, but a notebook in the novel. Presumably that’s because writing and reading aren’t very cinematic, so a more visual solution was needed. Less obviously, why was the doctor’s name changed from Edmund Nash to Mike Nasch? I can’t see any purpose to that.

Most important is the matter of the “willing suspension of disbelief,” in the translated words of Cicero, or maybe the words of Coleridge if you don’t believe the loose Ciceronian translation. It never fails to irritate me when people say that some particular novel is not realistic, to which I reply “That’s why they call it fiction.” Perhaps what they mean is that the author did not succeed if making the reader enter the world of the story and therefore the reader is unwilling to suspend their disbelief; that criticism would make sense to me and wouldn’t cause me to be irritated at said reader. In this case, as I said, I haven’t seen the movie adaptation, but I found that the original novel mostly let me suspend my disbelief, except for one crucial plot point that I can’t discuss, because it would be the worst kind of spoiler. You’ll just have to read the book.

Categories: Books