CAUTION – THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS
Christine wakes up every morning with no recollection of the past almost 30 years of her life. She wakes up expecting to be a child, but is in fact a middle aged woman with a husband and a incurable diagnosis of amnesia – a unique kind that not only wipes out memories from her past but prevents her from moving memories from the short term into the long term. She is meeting, without telling her husband, with Dr Nash, to test her memory. When she meets him at the start of the novel he gives her a journal that she has been keeping, and she reads the entries that she made but has no memory of. Who is lying to her? And what are their real secrets?
I love reading debut novels because there is no expectation put on them to perform – they are simply a person’s first expression and if they’re good then great, but if they’re not then it isn’t too hurtful (not like when a certain author uses time travel and ruins a perfectly good trilogy (Erika Johansen)). SJ Watson writes with the skill of a practised author, leaving clues and hints reminiscent of a mystery or crime novel throughout the story, and wrapping it up with a thriller coating, many of that foreshadowing so subtle that even I, an experienced reader who prides herself on always knowing what’s coming next, didn’t actually work out the twist until it was blatantly obvious!
Watson’s characterisation of Christine is complex and thorough. It is an impossible task to set yourself, writing a character who remembers nothing but needs to remember something in order for the story to make sense. I think that Watson relied too heavily on the journal which told most of the story, and could have built in more time with Christine feeling confused and disorientated. Too much would be boring, but too little meant that I didn’t really feel like I was experiencing the novel from her perspective like the first person narrative should have enabled me to do, because Watson didn’t build in enough realistic experience for me. The amnesia was used purely as a story telling tool, rather than a real part of a real person. It’s hard to tell the difference, I know, and it’s a picky criticism, but when illnesses like that are written well, you know about it!
Watson’s greatest skill is in his hint dropping and keeping the secret to the end. On reflection, throughout the novel there are aspects which, with the knowledge of the ending that I have now, I can see were there to guide me to that conclusion, but I missed most of them! That might be partly due to the fact that I read the first 200 pages in A&E whilst waiting for a diagnosis on a sprained achilles, but also they are so embedded and natural that you take them for granted. The experience I had with the twist at the end made me feel like I was Christine – like I had taken every word written as the truth because that was the only information I had, and actually the basic truth that I had accepted from the blurb WAS A LIE! It was an impressive and daring move, and it worked really well.
It is unfortunate that from that moment onwards, Watson falls into the familiar trope of a jealous lover spurned by their other half who not only attacks them but then stalks and cares for them until the truth comes out. This is an overused, overplayed storyline and one which perhaps Watson should have done without. There were other ways to keep the thriller moving without making (MASSIVE SPOILER) the man we all assumed was Christine’s husband into the jealous ex-lover. I would like to see Watson moving out of that comfort and towards a more innovative twist next time, because with his skill at keeping secrets, this is something he could excel at!
Overall, this was a good read, and a nice distraction from pain an injury. Definitely an author I would read again, though I would be worried that now he has found a strategy that works he might stick to it. But Watson’s writing style, descriptions and characterisation have a lot of potential.