Amnesia is a tantalising device in fiction, offering the astute storyteller a toolbox of narrative trapdoors and intrigues with which to dazzle. While memory loss has been ploughed extensively in thrillers on page and screen (think Christopher Nolan’s Memento), where this debut novel excels is its attention to detail.
A British National Health Service (NHS) audiologist by trade, SJ Watson roots his story in the mundane details of domestic life – chopping an onion, using a mobile phone – which render amnesia more than a mere plot device, exploring both the mind’s beguiling idiosyncrasies and the creative opportunities they offer in unison. Having topped bestseller lists both sides of the Atlantic, the 2011 novel is now enjoying a fresh GCC print run ahead of a soon-arriving cinema adaptation, starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth.
Christine Lucas is a 47-year-old woman who wakes every day remembering little of the preceding decades, and nothing before the horrific episode which destroyed her ability to store new memories for more than a day. She begins each morning discovering her home and husband as if for the first time, painfully piecing her biography together little by little, before going to bed and triggering the process all over again. So far, so familiar.
Things start to change when the once-writer starts keeping a journal, of which much of the novel is a reproduction. While the premise that our protagonist re-reads every proceeding page each morning – before discovering and writing more – starts to drag past the 200th page, it’s the implied and presumed discrepancies between the entries where the narrative intrigue lies (notably, it becomes a video diary in the movie). Despite a lingering sense that things are not as they seem – there’s fun to be had in guessing where the fishhooks end and the plot holes begin – events only start to truly unravel in the second half of the book. By then, so rooted are we in our heroine’s travails that a few loose ends and the slightly hurried, Hollywood-baiting ending, can be forgiven, Watson having weighed in with such attention to both the condition and the domestic landscape in the novel’s early stages.
A rewarding and relatively literary thriller, Before I Go to Sleep takes a potentially hackneyed concept and injects it with a considered amount of research, a surprisingly mature voice and a pleasant self-control, all of which helped the novel appeal to thousands of readers who would never normally go near the genre. Our fingers are firmly crossed that the filmmakers tasked with taking it to the big screen exercise the same restraint.
Dhs69. Available from Book World by Kinokuniya, The Dubai Mall (04 434 0111).