Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson is an example of one of those books where I watched the film first, realised it was a good story, then decided I wanted to read it. I was right in thinking it is a good story, but I was wrong in assuming that would make it a good book.
I hate to say this about a book because I hardly feel like I’m writing from a position of authority, but this book is appallingly written.
Anyone who knows anything about my reading and writing tastes knows that I can’t stand clunky, jarring non-sentences, and this book is full of them. I think the author’s intentions were to make the writing more dramatic, but this shouldn’t be necessary. The story of a woman with amnesia, who can only retain memory for a single day, should be dramatic enough on its own. The result of Watson’s dramatic writing style actually hinders the text from running smoothly and flowing, like any good writing should.
On the topic of being dramatic, I really dislike a lot of Watson’s word choices. There’s an awful lot of ‘beating hearts’ and ‘explosions’ of thoughts, love, fear, grief; the list is endless. Unless I am very much mistaken about human emotions and anatomy, no one has ever ‘exploded’ from grief, and for this metaphor to be used time and time again, not only gets boring but ridiculous. Then there’s sentences like ‘Hate bubbles up in me.’ which is probably something I would have written at school.
Although it’s obviously more of a challenge with a first person narration, this novel is all telling and no showing. The author tells me what’s going on and tells me how Christine feels about it. There are no actions to ‘show’ how she is feeling, he simply states ‘I felt tired. Exhausted. I wanted only to sleep but I was frightened to. Frightened of what I might forget.’ That last sentence is also not a sentence, it is a clause that should be attached to the previous sentence. That irritates me. The other thing about these few lines is the fact that is says the same couple of things multiple times – I guess that’s why the book is so long-winded. All Watson needs to state is that she is tired and frightened. This could be done with a sentence like, ‘My blinks get longer with the weight of exhaustion, but if I sleep, I’m frightened of what I might forget.’ This is first a bit of showing and then a bit of telling. Also, nothing is said twice. It’s a waste of words to repeat things unnecessarily.
The following passage will further illustrate my previous points:
‘I am tired now. I will stop writing soon, and then hide my journal, turn off the light. Sleep. Pray that tomorrow I may wake and remember my son.’
I hate non-sentences. ‘Sleep.’ is not a sentence and it breaks the text up far too much. There’s a huge amount of effort behind these words, the writer is trying too hard to be dramatic, and, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I believe writing should be effortless. The other problem with these ‘phrases’ (I’ll call them phrases because they are not all sentences) is that they are part of her diary entry and I don’t know anyone who writes like that, it’s just not natural.
This brings me on to my next point. Since a large proportion of the book is Christine Lucas’s journal you’d think there would be very limited room for stage direction, but no, Watson has chosen to include a vast quantity anyway. This quite frankly doesn’t make sense. When was the last time anyone wrote a journal and included phrases like ‘I got up, ate dinner, then went to bed’ or ‘I made an excuse. I came upstairs, to the bedroom. Back to the wardrobe. I wrote on.’ (Again with the short sentences. Just stop.) Even though the protagonist is an amnesiac, and consequently wants to include as much information as possible about her life, I find it hard to believe she would take the time to right about having sausage and mash, with ‘peas floating in thin gravy’, for dinner. It pads out the story of course, but doesn’t make sense as part of a diary.
The next problem is inconsistent typography. In Parts 1 and 3 of the book, those either side of the diary, the prose is written in first person past tense from Christine’s point of view, however, during her narrative she has flashbacks. Sometimes these memories are italicised, sometimes they are not. Sometimes there are page breaks to clarify the distinction, sometimes there are not. This inconsistent typography just makes what’s happening in the present and what’s a recalled memory difficult to distinguish between. Watson is making life much harder for the reader than it needs to be.
Then there’s the repetition of reminding us it is a diary. Watson seems to think his readers are stupid. Given that 250+ pages of the book are diary entry (and there are dates at the beginning of each new day) I don’t think we need to be reminded at the beginning and end of nearly every entry that it is a diary, yet he continues, repeatedly, to include phrases like ‘I come upstairs and write this down.’ We get it.
To make matters worse some of the tenses aren’t quite right and some of the syntax is rather awkward. For example I had to read one of the sentences on the last page about three times before I got the words in the right order:
“The people who love you have come back to you.”
“But I want to have come back to them, too,’ I said. ‘I want to have come back to them.”
Try saying that three times when drunk…
Now that I’ve stated what I disliked so much about the book I will say that it’s quite a good story. I think it’s longer than it needs to be and I think as a whole the execution of the story could have been far better, but the plot is interesting. It’s not your standard amnesiac story, a comedy like 50 First Dates or a sad romance like The Vow, this is a thriller. What’s more is that some of the twists really are good – they’re genuinely unpredictable (even though I’d seen the film first – I guess it was long enough ago I forgot they were coming).
Having said that, as the plot and the twists are really all this book has going for it, then you might as well spend 90 minutes watching the film instead. It has Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth in it and good actors are everything. My advice – watch the film.