Category Archives: Review

Lit_Psych

“Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember

 

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Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
by S. J. Watson
HarperCollins, 2011
Kindle Edition

A woman awakens, wonders where she is, rolls over—and is shocked to see a middle-aged man wearing a wedding ring and with hairs on his back sleeping next to her. She stumbles into the bathroom, where the hand that grasps the soap doesn’t look like hers. When she looks into the mirror, a middle-aged woman she doesn’t recognize, 20 or 25 years too old to be herself, stares back at her in shock. Then the man from the bed comes into the bathroom. “I’m your husband, Ben,” he tells her, and explains that almost 20 years ago, at age 29, she had an accident that caused amnesia. Every morning he has to give her the same explanation, he says, because she loses each day’s memories when she goes to sleep at night.

The first-person narrator of these events is Christine Lucas, age 47. All she knows about her recent self is what Ben tells her before leaving for work; her own memories seem to end in her early 20s. Alone in the house and wondering what to do, she receives a phone call from a man who says that he is Dr. Nash, her doctor, and that they have been working on trying to improve her memory. She has no recollection of him but agrees to meet with him for coffee. Dr. Nash gives Christine a leather-bound book and tells her that she has been writing in as a possible way to stimulate her memory. Eager to learn something about herself, Christine opens the journal and finds three chilling words: DON’T TRUST BEN.

And so begins Christine’s journey to find out the truth about herself and her past. Each night, before going to sleep, she adds more information to the journal. Each morning Dr. Nash telephones to tell Christine to find the journal in her closet and read it. As she accumulates more information, she finds more questions than answers. And as vague snatches of memory start tantalizing her, her intuition not to trust Ben deepens.

Before I Go to Sleep is a mesmerizing page-turner, the kind that will keep the reader up all night. Who is Christine, really? What happened to cause her amnesia? And who is Ben, the man upon whom she is so dependent? Can she trust her intuition? And what will finally happen when her journal becomes too long for her to read anew every morning? The nature of the novel’s premise requires that the reader occasionally know more than Christine knows as she seeks answers to these questions, and Watson does a good job of inserting the necessary information while at the same time maintaining suspense.

Initially I read this novel on the level of the thriller that it is. But swirling just below the thriller’s surface are aspects of that most basic human question: Who am I? Christine’s drive to discover and reclaim her past is a quest for self-knowledge, for her own sense of identity: “All I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things” (p. 155). We need memories to give us a sense of the continuity of our existence. Without the knowledge of our own past, we cannot know who we are in the present. Christine realizes this as she stares at the journal containing the substance of her life: “But, I realized, these truths are all I have. They are my past. They are what makes me human. Without them, I am nothing. Nothing but an animal” (p. 160).

For Christine, finding out who she is involves rediscovering her past life experiences and the lessons she has learned from them. We all create a sense of our own identity by assembling memories of past events into a life narrative that demonstrates how we have become the person we are today. Only by reclaiming the story of her past life can Christine become a unique, independent individual. Christine realizes this near the end of the novel, when she has learned the truth about herself and her husband: “And I will tell him about this journal, that finally I am able to give myself a narrative, a life, and I will show it to him, if he asks to see it. And then I can continue to use it, to tell my story, my autobiography. To create myself from nothing” (p. 274).

This review originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews.

© 2011 by Mary Daniels Brown

Monday Miscellany

Cover: The Golden Thread

Book review: “The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing,” by Ewan Clayton

Anyone who loves books will be interested in this book, which tells the story of typography:

Writing matters, says Ewan Clayton, calligrapher, former monk, design and media professor and visual consultant to Xerox in Palo Alto, Calif., the folks who made the first networked home computer. Not just who cut the typeface, not just the letters and words. But the manner in which over the millennia we’ve inscribed, carved, painted, brushed, printed and now text them. Writing tells us how we inhabit our world, how we move through it and interact with each other.

Bring the literary giants of the great war to life

Thanks to Project Gutenberg and Oxford University’s poetry archive, the literature of the first world war has never been more accessible

As the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war approaches, many texts—including a few novels, “memoirs galore, and literary curiosities including propaganda by Arthur Conan Doyle”—are entering the public domain and becoming freely available.

The cold equations of ethics

On the University of Oxford blog Practical Ethics, Anders Sandberg considers an article by science fiction author Cory Doctorow about a couple of stories that feature ethical dilemmas:

By imposing the right boundary conditions an author can make even extreme behaviour moral. This makes for good stories, but they are not teaching us how to think well about the future since they depend on a contrived situation. Maybe such contrived situations could occur, but real situations have far less coherent contexts and hence make the moral issues far more non-trivial. Since well written stories are salient and memorable, we often use them as examples when reasoning about the real world… despite the risk of their conclusions being arbitrarily prescribed.

My own favourite example of this kind of induction of conclusions is Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which is often used as an argument that cognitive enhancement will not be good for people. However, the reason the protagonist suffers is that he and the world is written that way. While it makes for a good story it doesn’t help us think much about the nature of intelligence enhancement despite apparently giving us an argument.

This suggests that writers trying to be moral should do their best to refrain from overly constraining their fictional worlds in order to tell stories that actually help us think about acting morally in the real world.

Sandberg’s point that an overly contrived story that can lead to only one solution does not really help us learn to think ethically is an important one, since it’s easy to be taken in by such a literary work.

And be sure to look at Doctorow’s article, which Sandberg links to in his introduction.

10 Authors from Georgia You Should Read Now

Paste Magazine introduces its 50 States Project with a list of “10 contemporary authors from Georgia who are contributing to the evolving landscape of Southern literature.”

I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that I haven’t heard of any of these authors. It’s time to expand my reading list.

What’s It Like Reading ‘Peyton Place’ Today?

This week, Thomas Mallon and Anna Holmes discuss what it’s like reading “Peyton Place” today, 50 years after the death of its author, Grace Metalious.

Opposite views of what this historic salient novel, whose title has become part of the common parlance, offers today’s readers.

Featured Review: “Room” by Emma Donoghue

Featured Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Cover: RoomIn a writer’s group I participate in someone recently asked for recommendations of novels to look at as examples in creating the voice of a child narrator.

I’ve always been interested in books with child narrators because I think one of the hardest jobs writers can set for themselves is the creation of a child’s voice. The successful portrayal of a child narrator involves not only age-appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure, but also a way of looking at the world that fits the child’s age.

Emma Donoghue does a remarkable job with 5-year-old Jack in the novel Room. When the book first came out, some critics said that Jack sounds much older than 5. They’re right: Jack doesn’t sound like a typical 5-year old.

But that’s because Jack isn’t a typical 5-year-old. He’s a child who has been confined to a single room for his entire life. The only person he’s had contact with is his mother, who has spent every moment of Jack’s 5 years looking out for him, trying to provide him as much stimulation as possible within their restricted environment. Jack has never talked to other children, only to his mother. I would have found it strange if Jack did sound like a typical 5-year-old.

Room is one of the best examples I know of how to create a convincing child narrator.

If you have a favorite novel narrated by a child, please let us know in the comment section.