Hazel McHaffie

Before I Go to Sleep

Look Behind You

Treading too close to delusion and insanity is bad for my health! I knew that when I was in my early twenties: I steered well away from psychiatry during my training, all too aware of the fine dividing line between normal and abnormal. I’m conscious of that same sense of unease when I read excellent novels about psychological and emotional fragility or abuse.

But having had a healthy break from psychological thrillers recently, I decided it was time to get back into them. So I chose Look Behind You by Sibel Hodge from my bookshelves, and was instantly sucked into that tense feeling when someone is playing with your mind, and you really don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined and what’s dangerous.

From the outset we’re dragged into a terrifying world, where the borderline between reality and fantasy is frighteningly blurred. 27-year-old English teacher, Chloe Benson, emerges from unconsciousness unsure where she is … is she coming to during an operation? after an accident? a bomb blast? in prison? after a terrorist attack? Her bewilderment and growing terror are palpable. Whatever the precursors, her senses tell her that her wrists and ankles are bound with rope, her head is splitting, she’s in some kind of underground tomb, surrounded by the smell of earthy mouldiness, dankness and decay. But why is she restrained? Who has abducted and imprisoned her? And what has happened to reduce her to this state of amnesia?

When she eventually escapes, more torment awaits her. No one seems to believe her story – not the doctors, not the police, and certainly not her husband, Liam. What’s more there’s ample evidence that she has a history of depression and hallucinations, paranoia and delusion. She’s even been sectioned under the Mental Health Act and detained in a psychiatric hospital. Papers and Liam attest to that, and the fact that her mother committed suicide.

Could she have imagined it all?

What is an indisputable fact, however, is that somehow she has lost seven weeks of memories. The doctors say she’s had an adverse reaction to medication – records show it’s happened before after a miscarriage. Is this simply another psychotic episode? By the time she’s sent home from hospital she has no idea what the truth is.

‘…the only one who really believes me is me, and until I know the truth, my life is in danger.’

Painfully, little by little, she pieces together the last seven weeks. Doubts and fears mount. And her conviction that someone is determined to harm her grows daily. Where can she go? Who can she trust? Not her husband certainly; she has endured two years of psychological abuse from him; she’s quite sure of that. Her best friend has gone into a retreat abroad, and is somehow unreachable. Her boss has as good as fired her, and one of her staunch allies among the students is under investigation by the police. There are no independent witnesses to verify Chloe’s version of events; the police repeatedly draw blanks, so they’re forced to the conclusion that it seems highly unlikely that any crime has been committed.

We, on the other hand, know something bad has happened. We’re on tenterhooks as Chloe relaxes her guard … will whoever harmed her strike again?

‘The constant fear is a burning hole in my chest as I blindly wait for something dreadful and painful to happen. I’m driving myself mad with it. I want it to be over.’

A large part of her doesn’t want to know the answer. The human brain is capable of blocking traumatic memories with amnesia, and some things are too awful to remember; could this be one of them? If she gets to know what really happened, she’ll be forced to re-live the horror of the underground tomb, feel again the terror … When she starts scrutinising the people around her, looking for clues, looking for suspects, everyone seems sinister or weird. But she can’t spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder.

When the appalling truth finally reveals itself, Chloe feels something akin to a sense of resigned calm. Sometimes it’s easier to just give up and give in to the fate destined for you. The waiting is finally over. She doesn’t have the strength to resist any longer. And it’s then that the police finally accept her story.

Phew. It was a relief to get to the end of this one. It reminded me of SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep: you’re suspicious of everyone and everything. An uncomfortable place to be. I felt decidedly edgy all day until I knew the truth. Good thing I didn’t specialise in psychiatry, huh?!

 

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A serious distraction or a perfect gift?

When Christine Lucas wakes up in a strange bed next to a middle-aged man wearing a wedding ring she starts to panic. But in the bathroom she finds photographs which seem to say this is her home and the man is her husband. And the man himself confirms this. Over and over again.

Dr Nash, a neuropsychologist who is seeing her secretly, tells her she has a very unusual form of amnesia following an accident, which has obliterated her long-term memories and made her unable to retain short-term happenings long enough to create new ones. Sleep obliterates everything. Each day Chris is starting with a clean slate.

‘Today is all I have.’

‘… tonight, as I sleep, my mind will erase everything I know today. Everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I am still a child. Thinking I still have a whole lifetime of choices ahead of me.’

Imagine facing such a nightmare every single morning. Every day shocked to find the face and body in the mirror are decades older than you think you are. Every day having to ask who you are, if you have children, what happened to you. Every day experiencing fresh grief over things that happened years ago.

But Christine is faced with more than simply forgetting. Her world is full of perplexity and confusion. And threat. Her husband Ben seems to be nothing but patient and loving, but in the front of her journal, beneath her name, she has written: DON’T TRUST BEN.

Why is he not allowed to see her journal as it instructs? Is the scrapbook of a past life he has prepared for her different from her own account which she can’t remember writing? Why does he lie to her about their family life, her career, the accident, her best friend? Why does he hide old photographs? Simply reading about her distorted world muddles the brain and makes you doubt your own sanity so clever is  SJ Watson‘s writing in Before I Go to Sleep.

But with Dr Nash’s support (he phones her everyday to remind her about the existence of the diary and to tell her to write in it.) Christine’s journal fills up. She uses it to recreate a narrative of her life and identity, and gradually pieces of the jigsaw slot into place. Reading it gives her a launching pad for the day. Her written account is augmented by vivid flashbacks. But are they real memories? Imagination and truth remain blurred, and even her doctor doubts the veracity of some of her story. To her confused mind no one is completely trustworthy. But how much of their response is protective and how much malign?

Then, just when you start to relax your guard, when you think you’ve sussed what’s happening, wham! In comes a greater terror than anything Christine has experienced before.

It’s a long time since I read any book as compelling as this, never mind a debut novel. Because Watson is new on the literary circuit this year. He’s an NHS audiologist who wrote Before I Go to Sleep in his spare time as part of a writing course. And it’s been a runaway success. Deservedly so. It combines  the authenticity of Deborah Wearing’s true account of her husband, Clive’s, amnesia in Forever Today – A Memoir of Love and Amnesia, with the tension of a Stephen King thriller. I had to keep reading!

Highly recommended if you can spare the time to be hypnotised by a book this close to Christmas. Or maybe it’s the ideal gift.

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