Hazel McHaffie

neuropsychology

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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