“What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?”
-S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep
Using a plot line that involves memory loss or traumatic brain injury is kind of like taking a crowded elevator up one floor. It’s lazy and everyone knows what you’re doing, but no one’s going to call you out on it. Probably because they would do it too, if they were attempting to write an international bestseller or they had just walked the excruciating 15 feet from the parking lot to the lobby. I know I would. What could possibly be more convenient than having a narrator who simply DOES NOT REMEMBER some crucial detail that the entire premise of the story balances on like an elephant doing a handstand on a Q-Tip?
It’s pretty nice for the reader too. These kinds of mystery novels exist in a parallel universe to that of Sherlock Holmes, in which he’s not just one, but 28 steps ahead of us at all times, to be exact. It’s refreshing to read a book in which the narrator actually knows less than me for once. It reassures me that I am, in fact, the brilliant, crime-solving, amateur sleuth I always knew I would be.
The real problem with these books is that they never fully make sense. And by that I don’t mean that they are nonsensical, rambling disasters. S. J. Watson, especially, avoids that fate by portraying Chrissie’s far-fetched form of amnesia through the lens of a jarringly ordinary existence. The issue, for me, is that the premise never goes far enough to the point where I can allow myself to actually suspend my disbelief.
Chrissie is not your average fictional amnesiac. She was not detained in some top-secret Government facility, poked, prodded, and injected like a lab rat in the name of research. She hasn’t repressed memories of some horrifyingly traumatic childhood abuse. Instead, Chrissie’s short term memory serves its purpose for about 24 hours, max. It’s as if its metaphorical “Reset” button gets pressed every time she falls asleep, like clockwork. Despite the scientific and logical barriers to any substantial empathy, I do feel for her. Each morning she wakes up next to a husband she doesn’t recognize, in a house she swears she’s never been in before, staring at a reflection she thinks has aged 20 years overnight. Yikes. With the encouragement of the reserved Dr. Nash, she secretly begins documenting each day in a notebook, and as she reads and re-reads her own entries she finally gets a grip on the present long enough to venture cautiously into the past. Slowly, she pieces together her life story, including beautiful memories she is ecstatic to remember and horrifying truths she wishes she’d forget.
Though the novel is thought-provoking and the concept is fascinating to consider, it fails the reader in one of its most fundamental roles. Rather than making the ordinary into the extraordinary, it makes the extraordinary, well, ordinary. Watson makes the same mistake that all authors who use the patented “Memory Loss Plot Development Escape Route” make. The key to any mystery or psychological thriller is that the reader understands the flaws that define each character, simultaneously empathizing with and despising them. The reader must be so engrossed in the red flags dropped haphazardly throughout each page that they miss the Empire State Building sized red flag that has been smacking them over the head since the first chapter. When the narrator can’t even remember their own flaws long enough for the reader to worry about what they might mean…well, then the author has a problem. A bored reader is a smart reader and a smart reader fills in the holes in the poor, confused narrator’s Swiss-cheese memory long before they can figure it out themselves.