Hazel McHaffie

Stephen King

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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Interviews and irritations

Every so often I allow ‘Catch-up with the writerly journals’ to creep to the top of my to-do list. Funny how there always seem to be more important (or more appealing) things to read. But almost every time I succumb, I end up finding pearls of wisdom that brighten my day and sharpen my focus.

This week two tips for authors resonated especially; both in Mslexia, (‘The journal for women who write‘).

1. The story belongs in front. So says Stephen King. Not the research, not the facts. The story. Getting the balance right is an ongoing preoccupation of mine. Medicine is evolving all the time and throwing up new challenges, and to some degree readers need to understand the dilemmas that result in order to appreciate the difficulties for my characters of choosing this or that course of action. I do know that the story must predominate, but thanks to King, I am resolved all over again to be extra super vigilant.

2. Characters should earn the right to occupy the main roles.  Apparently Kazuo Ishiguro interviews all his characters to see who should get the job of narrator. I’ve never done this consciously but I might in future! I do, of course, give characters a chance to prove themselves, I tinker with voices and tenses and settings until the right one slots into place. But the idea of a job interview sounds much more structured. And fun.

Oh, and it’s not always the most attractive character who succeeds. Right now my ear is tuned into the sound of people who specialise in saccharine approximations of what they think the client wants to hear, regardless of the truth.

For six months now – six months! – ever since our wall was demolished in the car accident in January, we’ve been dealing Ruined railingswith insurers and loss adjusters. Everybody we speak to is the kind of person you’d happily take home to meet your mum – polite and supportive to a fault. Do they spend an obligatory three months in charm school, I wonder? And they always promise you ‘… within 48 hours’, ‘hopefully in the next x days’, where x is a comfortingly small number. But somehow that vital piece of promised information never seems to materialise.

Then finally a promising contact appears in person, measures everything in sight with unimpeachable solemnity and gravitas, and murmurs sympathetically, whilst quizzing us on the number of inches of floor space we actually own, and how many bathrooms two people actually use, and outlining the scams other people perpetrate. Single-handedly he restores our confidence. Morale soars. At last! But then … this bright and shining saver of our sanity is found mysteriously to have ‘left the company‘ – before his report reaches us what’s more! Someone else is now in charge of our case. But ‘unfortunately he’s in Guilford today’ … no Bristol … no Stoke… no Guildford … We are given numbers. We get through to every one. Eventually. But he who has now ‘taken over the file’ is nowhere to be found. His eventual email tells us he too has been trained in the same School of Procrastination with Style. Cue sigh of resignation. The crumbled heap of ancient stone and iron remains undisturbed.

Then, a few weeks ago, my daughter and I booked for a workshop in flower arranging. We looked forward with excitement to a full day of fun and instruction – making corsages, hand-ties, pedestal arrangements, etc. Six hours with a professional tutor. Fabulous venue. Excellent.

The happy anticipation lasted until the afternoon before the event. From that moment on we were bombarded with sugared lies, by delightful people who felt they must coax us through each calamity and bungled arrangement and miscommunication. And all this as we watched in disbelief our promised six hours reduce inexorably to barely two.

Why did they fabricate this tissue of inexactitudes? Do we look like timid insecure creatures who will dissolve at the merest hint of vicissitude? No. We are both professional, educated women who would take bald truth squarely on the chin. Furthermore we are busy people who would welcome a succinct and honest: ‘We have made a monumental cock-up here.’ As it happened, because we shared the farce, we laughed our way through the whole sorry experience, and took our floral masterpieces (?!) home with pride, but it’s their attempts to shield us from the truth that pain us more than their overwhelming incompetence.

Surely it would be poetic justice to write them into a book? No interview required.

 

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