The Persistence of Memory — or Not

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s funny what we try to do to banish certain memories from our consciousness. One of the reasons that narcotics and alcohol are so compelling to so many is that they bring the promise of forgetfulness, even if just for a short time, of those thoughts that plague us. Once the dissipation passes, though, those memories have returned, a legion of ravens perched atop wisdom, despite all of our best efforts to the contrary.

But what if memory faded each morning, and you could start again? With a clean slate? Yes, this was the premise behind the Adam Sandler movie “30 First Dates,” in which Drew Barrymore woke up every morning with a cleaned-out memory bank.

It’s also the premise behind S.J. Watson’s “Before I Go to Sleep.” Christine Lucas wakes up every morning not knowing where she is, thinking she is in her twenties, next to a strange man. Over the next few minutes, she goes from confusion to terror to acceptance, as each morning she finds a series of photographs in the bathroom that are of her and the man in her bed. She also sees her fifty-year-old skin in the mirror, and on her hands. Once her husband finds her, he explains what has happened.

This happens. Every day.

A neurologist learns about her case and tries to help her, but her husband won’t allow it: she’s been through too many quack labs as it is, and the stress of new treatment might be too much. The neurologist is intrepid enough, though, to wait outside for her to take one of her daily walks, and he ends up meeting with her, helping her recover her memory. After all, her case is so unusual that it would make a great academic paper.

He gives her a journal and encourages her to write things in it before bed each night, and he calls her in the morning to remind her to look in her journal, to catch up on who she is. As time goes by, she learns more and more. Even there are no pictures of this person in her house, she and her husband apparently had a son — Adam. Who died. She had a best friend — Claire. Who moved to New Zealand. At least as far as her husband told her.

And who else can she ask?

To tell you much more about the plot would give away a marvelous series of twists and turns that is as close as you can get to riding a roller coaster without getting out of your chair. The great Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone) called this book “Memento on crystal meth.” If you’ve seen “Memento,” you might be wondering if that plot could move any faster, or with any more insanity. It can.

The most powerful part to this story is the way in which the author creates an amnesiac narrator. The attention to the details that would be involved in picking up the pieces of your mind (forget about your life — your mind is in shards) each day is what resonated with me. And so when the end comes, the feelings that you and I would feel, as people with normal memories, are multipled by a million. To call this book a pageturner would insult it with cliche — this book yanked my attention, strapped it into a seat, and pushed the button. Only when the ride was over did I even think to look up.

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One Response to “The Persistence of Memory — or Not”

  1. I read this a few months ago and really liked it as well.

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