Author: S.J. Watson

2011, HarperCollins

Filed under: Mystery, Thriller

Before I Go to Sleep has already garnered a flood of media attention and praise—from NPR to The Hollywood Reporter, everybody’s singling out this book as a can’t-miss summer thriller. Amazon called it “one of the best debut literary thrillers in recent years.”

That’s absolutely true, if you just take out the word “best” and insert “simplest.” This is a very simple, very short novel that revolves around a simple hook.

After an accident, Christine loses all her memories every time she goes to sleep. Her husband, Ben, patiently re-educates her about her life every morning. One day, Christine discovers a journal she’s kept secret from Ben and finds three chilling words written in it: “Don’t trust Ben.”

Besides her husband, Christine essentially has only one other person in her life: a mysterious doctor who somehow found her, and has been treating her without her husband’s knowledge. The crux of the book is this: which one is the bad man? Should she trust Ben or not?

The clues and accompanying twists line up in Tab-A/Slot-B configurations, made possible by Christine’s faulty memory. For instance (this is a made-up example, so as not to spoil anything): if Christine suddenly remembers that she was once punched by a man with green eyes, and one character always wears sunglasses, you can bet you’ll know what color his eyes are when he takes them off.

Unfortunately, that means the big secret is pretty easily guessable if you’re paying modest attention—and I’m not a mystery reader that tries to guess endings. Even worse, the simple structure means that motive and characterization (as gears in the engine of the mystery) take a backseat to memories and dreams dropped regularly into the narrative. On her own, Christine cannot determine whether Dr. Nash, say, has her best interests at heart, because she doesn’t really know who Dr. Nash is.

So she never tries to figure people out, she only tries to catch them in lies, and then she analyzes why they lied or why they didn’t. Whether she can trust herself, whether she’s the same person she was before, whether she will let her disease define her—Sleep dances near a few of these most fascinating facets of memory, but never uses them for support.

It’s almost impossible not to compare this book to the movie Memento, partially because their premises are so similar, but also because Memento managed so much more complexity with the same kind of material. In Memento, the main character has to rely on his ability to read people, but the mystery ultimately revolves around whether or not he can trust himself.

Memento is a logic puzzle on its surface, hiding a meditation on identity and trust. Sleep is a logic puzzle, period. And not a very hard one.

Since there are so few moving parts in this book, its prose begins to get repetitive, as Christine repeatedly describes confusion and the feeling of memories slamming into her or washing over her, etc., etc. Too often the metaphors are overwrought, and the emotions hamfisted. Like this:

I feel alone in the world.

It begins to rain. Large droplets splatter the window in front of my face, hang for a moment, and then, joined by others, begin their slow slide down the pane. I put my hand up to the cold glass.

So much separates me from the rest of the world.

Not terribly subtle.

All that said, Sleep is decently compelling, if only because that simple hook—the question of trust—draws a lot of water. But: as soon as the book answers that question, disappointment. Disappointment partially because the answer is easily guessable, partially because it’s so simple, and partially because Sleep offers nothing besides that answer. There’s no revelation, no wisdom, not terribly much in the way of entertainment along the way.

If your hobbies include nap time and coloring, then ignore everything I’ve just said: this is the can’t-miss thriller of the summer! If you read at an adult level, give it a miss, and read Grant Jerkins’s A Very Simple Crime instead. Jerkins’s novel revolves around trust every bit as much as Sleep, but features fully aware adults with real motives that they carefully hide.

Similar reads: A Very Simple Crime, by Grant Jerkins; Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn; The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkauf. I’d rank Sleep third of these, ahead of The Weight of Silence. And, of course, there’s the movie Memento, which you should probably watch again.