The Berwick Book Group’s new meeting-place, The Barrels Alehouse on Bridge Street, is proving popular, although I’m sure that has nothing to do with its alcohol license. But whatever the reason, we had an all-time high attendance of 15 for our May meeting, including two new members, Addie and Josie. Numbers were probably also swelled by the fact that SJ (Steve) Watson, author of Before I Go to Sleep, recently spoke at Berwick Library.
Before I Go to Sleep is an outstandingly successful first novel, having been translated into over 30 languages. It has won several awards including the 2011 CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) John Creasey ‘New Blood’ Dagger. Ridley Scott (director of Blade Runner, Alien and Thelma & Louise) has bought the film rights and there are reports that Gwyneth Paltrow will play the lead. So did we think this psychological thriller about a woman called Christine suffering from amnesia lives up to its acclaim?
Spoiler alert: It is impossible to discuss this book in any depth without revealing its plot.
In the main, members agreed that the book was a high-concept thriller which gripped them. Most of us read it very quickly – Martin in one sitting, Paula over a weekend, Josie almost in one go – and the description ‘page turner’ was used frequently. Another word that cropped up several times was ‘creepy’. However, there were dissenters. Anne R was disappointed after all the hype surrounding the book; Glynis thought it formulaic, guessing the denouement in the first chapter. And Margaret found it impossible to become immersed in.
As well as having a compelling storyline, those of us who enjoyed the book identified other elements that made it a satisfying read. Ann C considered it ‘more than a thriller’ because of its exploration of how human identity is tied up in memory, and there were several nods of agreement with this. Helen enjoyed the first person narration and felt that the male author got the tone about right, although I couldn’t help pointing out one instance of Christine’s thoughts about her middle-aged body jarring with what a woman would really think.
Addie was irritated by the assumption that loss of memory should be treated as a disaster when the book could have included a message about living for the now. This stimulated some interesting discussion. Paula was intrigued by the premise, and credited the book with achieving what it set out to do, in a no-nonsense way. Barbara agreed that it was ‘a button-pushing, accomplished debut’, although we all agreed it was a bit calculating, as if the author was expecting it to be turned into a screenplay.
We felt Before I Go to Sleep was let down by some of its characterisation and plotting. Although Christine was well-imagined and conveyed the trauma of her situation, Dr Nash came across as unconvincing and unprofessional, more a plot device than a living, breathing character. There were questions about the behaviour, even though he was obsessed, of Ben/Mike, like would he have waited as long as he did before taking Christine to live with him?
Even the book’s champions admitted it sagged in the middle, and the ending (which about half of us had been able to predict before reaching it) was too neat and far-fetched. Interestingly, some of us interpreted where Christine’s story ended to be a stock ‘happy ending’ and assumed that she would wake up the next day with her memory restored. Others, however, construed it to be less optimistic and therefore more affecting.
The quality of the writing didn’t impress many of us. For example, Anne R felt it was repetitive both in ideas and words, and should have been better edited. Mike agreed, saying it felt ‘mundane’, especially after the beautiful writing encountered in April’s book. Ann C, though, praised how well SJ Watson conveyed the claustrophobia of suburban life.
Like some of the books we have previously discussed, certain editions of this novel came with ‘Book club notes’, which are also on SJ Watson’s website. We didn’t, however, think these were particularly helpful. Several of us read Before I Go to Sleep on our Kindles, and now about half the group owns e-readers. Before finishing we discussed future reads, and several people expressed an interest in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, so we are hoping it will be out in paperback soon.
The June meeting will be held on the second Tuesday of the month, 12th June, because of the Diamond Jubilee holiday on the 7th. The book for that meeting is The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.
It has become a tradition to make our July meeting a special one. In previous years each member has read and spoken about their own choice on the themes of food, music and a childhood favourite. Members are invited bring along their suggestions for a 2012 theme to the June meeting, where a decision will be made.