Spoiler alert … spoiler alert … spoiler alert
When launching the Listener Book Club, I mentioned a book club that had broken up over Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap and wondered if our first selection, SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, would prove as divisive. I was joking. I didn’t for a moment think it would.
The novel came festooned with praise from writers Val McDermid, Anita Shreve, Dennis Lehane, Lionel Shriver, Sophie Hannah and Joanne Harris, and for anyone sniffy about of them also from newspapers such as the Guardian, Financial Times, Independent, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph.
In the UK, it won Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year, and it was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2011.
I read it myself and was impressed by the intricate plotting, psychological depiction of its central character, amnesiac Christine Lucas, and the themes of memory, imagination, truth, love, aging and identity it explored.
It wasn’t Fyodor Dostoyesky, it wasn’t Raymond Chandler, but it was a good read.
Divisive, however, the novel proved.
It certainly had its admirers.
Linda Lee wrote on our Facebook page: “This is an amazing first novel. I am so pleased to see him winning awards for this.”
Meanwhile, on Twitter, @emmawehipeihana “Got through this month’s @nzlbookclub book with indecent haste. Unsettling. It lingers.”
@Bbookworld is “not a Thriller chick but this has me turning pages!”
On finishing, after tweeting about “such an undercurrent of distrust!”, @Maorigirl3 announced “powered thru it today, it’s a goodie!”
@Vivacegirlnz tweeted: “I am half way yayyyy and don’t want to put it down”.
And @NaellCrosbyRoe “really enjoyed the first book – a great start”.
In one of the comment threads here in the Book Club section of the Listener website, Gerard Thompson-Tindling wrote: “Fantastic Idea for a book club love it. Got given this book for Christmas last year and loved it. I am a high school English teacher and was already planning on teaching the film Memento (on a similar topic), and have added the book as supplementary material to that film study.”
Thompson-Tindling – and with a wonderful name like that we hope he is a regular visitor to these comment threads – also wrote: “Great book on the issues with the Human Memory. NZ author Emily Perkins writes a great short story ‘Local Girl Goes Missing’ looking at the issue at little less dramatically but just as effectively in the collection Not Her Real Name”.
Lynda Scott Araya wrote: “What a wonderful idea! I hope that many more people catch on and join this group. Have just finished the first book, Before I go to Sleep. I could not put it down – what suspense!”
Linda Lee – this time on our website – wrote: “A Uk friend got me to read this last year, so I was really pleased it was picked for the Book Club. I see also the author is winning numerous awards overseas. Excellent first novel, very well done in the fact that a lot of the detail is repetitive without being boring and in each instance we gleam a little bit more into what is happening. I didnt pick the ending, in fact I thought the therapist had some sinister motive.”
Yeahbidy Glasgow wrote: “I was lucky enough to read this book on a rainy day in queenstown before Christmas. I read the first page and read it into the small hours of the morning. I never once put it down. I loved how your guessing was always thrown off kilter. And your thoughts warped through the mind of the main character. This is an amazing first book. A great thriller never has you guessing right until the author turns and drops an almighty mother of a clue and then everything goes from warp speed from there. A great recommendation for any reader. Nice on NZ book club!”
Siobhan Clare wrote: “I know the word ‘unputtdownable’ is used often about books, but this one truly was. It has one of the best first chapters I’ve read – totally hooked you. After reading this I wanted to share it with everyone so I could talk to other people about it- my book of 2011.”
Remember all the above as we move to the negative side of the ledger, evidenced most damningly by Nancy Wilson with her website comment: “Very disappointing, the blurb on the cover felt like a set-up for a really good read. Can’t understand what all the fuss was about. Has put me off the Listeners bookclub will be more discerning about the future books on offer. Found the book banal, and blandly wriitten.”
Linda Neale wrote: “I read this book some months ago and before it had received all the hype. I found it an enjoyable read and the storyline kept me interested but certainly not a book I would recall as being any special. Therefore, I was surprised when I started reading reviews and seeing the hype it was getting. I do not normally read thrillers so put my lack of excitement about it down to that. Nevertheless, it continues to surprise me the high level of publicity this book receives. I have read far better in teen/young adult literature recently.”
Naell Crosby-Roe wrote: “I have to agree with the comment from Linda Neale in that I am surprised at the hype this book has had. Whilst it felt very much like a jolly good holiday ready (I can see myself passing the hours on a sun bed with a G&T over this one) it isn’t what you’d call particularly well executed.”
@Styxstones “Never warmed to Christine, too passive, journal didn’t ring true, but interesting concept”
@OceaniaDawn “Wasn’t overly impressed with Before I Go to Sleep. Interesting premise but writing was clunky.”
Although for Lorna Stewart the novel was “a compelling read, I found it a little hollow. Maybe the characterization didn’t work too well for me. At the end I felt vaguely dissatisfied with it, like too much chocolate on an empty stomach.”
The most extensive condemnation came from Sue LaFleur (all 1000 words of it, so no, not on Twitter but on our website).
And she started so benignly, too, when she earlier commented on our Facebook page: “I have just read it in two sittings and it is the book I am reading for my own book club this month, as we got the idea from the Listener.”
I don’t know what the rest of her book club think, but for LaFleur: “I have to confess right away that I did not like this book at all.”
The reason LaFleur had read it in two sessions was, it seems, “to help with continuity, but was quite confused, so I immediately reread it and took notes”.
You can read the full extent of those notes here, with LaFleur admitting they are what enable her to be “so picky and pedantic”.
We like picky and pedantic. Picky and pedantic are what book criticism is all about.
“I counted ninety, yes 90!! times the phrase I love you or variations of cropped up. I think this is called purple prose and becomes labored,” wrote LaFleur.
“I noticed the author has an obsession with colours especially gold, orange and yellow. I counted 39. Here are a few: yellow note (x 2), yellow lamp, yellow romper suit, yellow earplugs, yellow birth certificate, lots of gold jewellery references, orange carpet, model of a brain parted like an orange, orange plastic chairs and yellow formica tables, orange squash, orange fireworks, carrot cake, orange blossom (x4),orange bedspread, orange sunrise and it goes on.
“And then I thought the author, when choosing real names, had the dictionary open at A and progressively worked his way through it. Such as Adam, Ben, Christine. There is our ABC. Then Alfie, St Annes, Australia, Adelaide, Amanda, Alan..oh that’s enough A’s, how about some B’s…..Ben, Barcelona, Birmingham, Claire, Christine, Canary Wharf, Dave, Ed, Fisher, George, Giles, Hilary, Helen, Italy, Julie, Kristian, Keith, Lou, Lucy, Lizzy, Mike, Manchester, St Marks, Mathew, Nige, NZ, Nash, Nicole, Paxton, Parliament Hill, Roger, Soper, Toby, Verona, Wheeler and ZZZZZZzzzzzzz…..”
There’s more (of course there’s more): “Loads of real and imagined sex and bobbing male members and liberal use of the F word do not put this book into any great literary category.”
Naell Crosby-Roe also observed that Christine “seemed far too concerned with bobbing genitals wherever the opportunity arose!”
LaFleur concluded giving us more insight into the novel’s selection for her book club: “So glad I only borrowed this from the library and am not happy that I chose it for the next book club choice I have just joined.”
Now I am feeling bad.
I’m also feeling bad about introducing the notion of literariness into the discussion with my rather too reflexive use of the term “literary thriller”.
Readers – and one critic, our own Craig Ranapia – were not slow to pick me up on this.
Pluto wrote: “I do agree with Carole Beu’s comment [in our podcast discussion] about whether or not this qualifies as a ‘literary thriller’, I don’t think its quite there; its well above standard airport reading but not quite at the levels it aspires to be. I was also hoping it would be a bit more abstract like Memento, but with a late-40s woman protagonist, I guess maybe not! I’m not so sure the device of a man writing as a woman really worked, it just wasn’t really convincing to me. Like others I thought the kindly Dr was going to be revealed as someone who was manipulating the plot. Glad to have read it and certainly look forward to next month’s selection.”
Ranapia wrote: “Frankly, I’m not sure ‘literary thriller’ is particular useful except as a marketing category. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were commercial pulp writers; they’re also debatably among the most influential literary stylists in 20th century American literature. As Sir Kingsley Amis once put it: ‘Importance’ isn’t important, good writing is.”
Replying to Ranapia, Pluto drilled further down into such categorisation: “As an ex-bookseller (for both an indy and large chain bookseller), I totally agree with the sentiment regarding labels such as ‘literary thriller’! If I was to put it on a shelf for sale, it would go into the general fiction section with a few copies in contemporary fiction so as to catch the sorts of readers who would rather die than be seen to be reading popular fiction (yes they do exist).”
Gerard Thompson-Tindling wrote: “I loved reading this book. Essentially it is a plot driven novel. And like other plot driven novels they grab you because you want to find out what happens next. They allow you to lose yourself in them and you are desperate to discover the next development. They have immense power on first reading but often don’t leave you with a lot at the end. Usually reading them a second time is nowhere near as enjoyable as the first.
“I guess as a reader we have to figure out where these books fit. Obviously this is all about individual preference but for me I will always remember the enthralling experience of reading this book, even if I forget a lot of its detail and language.”
JSWordPower thought “it’s very interesting that these book sellers spent a lot of the discussion focusing on how literary and under written the book might be. I did think the ending was very Hollywood (one suspects the author had the movie in mind) as the ‘baddie’ got his just desserts and Christine got her family back. But I did read the book from cover to cover in a weekend and I have read heaps of books that lose me quickly/half way/two thirds of the way through because I don’t care about the characters, the plot becomes inexplicable etc. Read the book a year ago so can’t remember the writing per se, but I thought this book was good- well drawn characters,nearly believeable plot and one cares what happens, which is the key ingredient that keeps me reading. I also think that booksellers might need to get with the game in that they should welcome books like this that are high profile and popular. The market for literary books is probably quite small and getting smaller.”
To which Kiran Dass, one of our bookseller podcasters, responded: “I think it’s perfectly reasonable (particularly in this context) to discuss how a book might be underwritten, JSWordPower. And the market for ‘literary’ books is not getting smaller. This is something I have the immense pleasure of seeing first-hand every day at my job as a bookseller. Many people read a wide range of fiction, (which most of the booksellers I know encourage. If you must know, I know many booksellers who don’t even read ‘literary fiction’) so it’s good to bear in mind that because somebody doesn’t fancy one particular ‘popular’ novel, this does not make them a literary snob by default.”
Belinda Jeursen “read this book in a very short space of time, in much the same way I used to devour slightly ‘trashy’ fiction when I was about 13, knowing it’s not quite up to standard but enjoying the page tuirning compulsion it induced. This did wear off in the second half a bit when I started to guess (correctly) at the plot, and became more aware of the writing’s clumsiness – especially when Christine is reading back over her diary where the descriptions are wordy and cliched. In the end I felt it would be better as a mainstream movie but enjoyed the experience of being totally caught up in it, which doesn’t always happen with tougher ‘literary’ reads. I thought Christine’s character was well drawn but the others less believable. It did get me thinking about the connection between memory and feeling and how much of what we think, feel and believe is connected to past experiences. Looking forward to the next book. PS: read this on my Kindle and am thinking a lot about how different the experience of reading a printed book is in comparison. I don’t feel as much “connection” with e books as I do when the book is a physical object.”
Karen Newton “also read the book on my Kindle and didn’t feel as ‘connected’ as perhaps I might have if I had a hard copy to read. But then I didn’t like the book so maybe that explains the absence of connectedness.”
Newton wrote, too: “I didn’t like this book on a number of levels and find it hard to understand why it is so popular. Neither of the two main female characters are believabLe or like able. I was very aware of the (male) author and I agree with carol that I don’t think this Is a book that a woman would write. I thought it was poorly written, lightweight and I couldn’t wait till it finished. I guess that’s a ‘not recommended’ from me. I hope the next book the club chooses is worth taking the time to read.”
Some were uncomfortable with Christine’s treatment at the hands of a male writer.
Margaret Cathie didn’t like “the connotations of male power and control”.
Robyn Dare didn’t “know this was written by a male, and was surprised when I found out, although thought the references to heaps of ‘wrinkles’ and ageing a little overdone as she is only supposed to be in her early 40`s, god help us, how would she have been described if she was truly middle-aged.”
@Styxstones was “Intrigued that SJ Watson coy about gender on bk jacket. Has to be male those because of the sex scenes”.
Thompson-Tindling was “fascinated in the impact of the main character in the novel being a female as opposed to a male in Memento. As a reader or viewer how does gender alter our view of the character’s condition. Do we see her as more vulnerable because she is female? Is that sexist or reality?”
To which Susan Jacobs responded: “I don’t think she is more vulnerable because she is a ‘she’ – In the condition the character finds her/himself in, it seems a person of either gender would be extremely vulnerable.”
For Pluto, “the themes of this novel are quite unsettling, almost misogynist…men controlling a vulnerable woman in varying degress, and yes I do include the Dr in that sentiment. Having these themes presented by a man writing as a woman sits a bit uneasy with me.”
Pluto was also among those who had a problem with the ending, thinking it “was a bit too tidy…the reveal of who exactly ‘Ben’ was, the weekend away at the scene of the crime (so to speak), the real Ben declaring his never ending love for Chrissy…just a bit too manufactured for a film adaptation for my liking.”
For Jeremy Andrew: “The ending does go rather fast. Its not so much that it feels rushed, more that it feels blurted, like the author gets to the climax and goes ‘and then the bad guy dies in the fire and Ben comes back to her and Claire is there and Adam and her memory is lots better and she lives happily ever after the end.’”
@first_lines thought “’Before I go to sleep’ sustains menacing atmosphere right up to the ending, when it is suddenly Mills & Boon”.
@mandyherbet agreed. “Thank you for identifying what bugged me abt that book. Atmosphere was great 4 most of the book, but that ending!”
Gillian Croad “felt the end was a bit rushed and was pleased the loose ends were tied up but was a bit more sceptical about this as a result.”
Margaret Cathie “thought the ending was predictable (as Dr Nash seemed too insipid to be capable of manipulating her).”
Gretchen Kivell was more forgiving of the ending. “I was very surprised how the ending tied up so many loose ends, and so quickly. I didn’t find it far-fetched, either (on thinking about it for a while). Watson managed to portray a very creepy, under-intelligent man who could nevertheless done all of the things he did. Ugh. Good book, though. Thanks for getting me to read it.”
And @BlueShiftNZ wouldn’t have been alone in thinking: “OMG! To quote M Night Shyalaman – What a twist!”
For our own ending, being a glass-half-full kind of man (I am so not), let’s have the half-glass verdict of Martine Poiree: “Like many others I was hooked from the first chapter and spent most of the (wet) weekend reading it. I enjoyed the way it made me reflect on just what memories are, real, invented, lost, rediscovered etc.
“I found the writing uneven in that I didn’t notice it initially, which I consider a good sign, as I was completely taken by the story, but as I read on I felt it became more clumsy, and I have to admit I started to get a bit bored with it past the halway mark. However, just as I was about to put it down and go and do something else, it hooked me in again and I read on until the end.
“I completely agree that whilst it was a relief to get to a happy ending, it felt a bit rushed and a bit too nice. I had actually thought we were going to discover that Ben had burnt the house down and accidently killed their son, hence the way he didn’t want Chrissy to be cured.
“So yes, I would recommend it as a good read, I think it is a great ‘NZ to Europe’ flight kind of book, but I won’t be saying to my friends that it is a great book, and certainly not a literary one. Amazing for a first book though, and I look forward to reading his next one.”
Me, too. And OMG! What a twist! I lied. Here, in fact, is our final comment, because it captures perfectly the spirit of the Listener Book Club and everything we’re about.
“Thanks very much for the invitation to join your book club,” wrote Teresa Gordon. “It was my New Years resolution to join such a club however life got in the way and now you’ve given me a chance to say that I have finally kept a New Years resolution! I enjoyed your first book choice – reading it on my Kindle until the wee small hours!”
Meanwhile, see you back here on Friday, April 6, for our interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad author Jennifer Egan about next month’s book, her 2001 novel Look at Me.