Two Psycho-thrillers: SJ Watson & Sophie Hannah

This post is combined from two in my lost posts archive, republished into their original place in my blog’s timeline.

Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson

There is a lot of love out there for this novel. Despite the hype though, given the type of psychological thriller that it is, it was always going to be a book I’d read anyway.

Christine wakes every morning to a man and house she can’t remember. After a horrific car crash she has severe amnesia, but she is unable to make new memories too; as she sleeps her brain wipes her experiences from that day clear away.  Each morning she has to find herself again – her memory stops in her twenties, but she is now 47.  She meets her long-suffering husband Ben who says he still loves her anew, and has to be told about her life yet again, piecing together enough to get her through the day.

Christine is, unknown to Ben who would be against it, secretly seeing a doctor who thinks he can help her with her memory loss. Dr Nash asks her to keep a secret journal, and rings her each day to tell her about the book’s existence. Thus Christine begins to piece together bits of her life that she can’t remember and Ben doesn’t seem to want to tell her about – which is understandable as he has to do this every day after all. Doing this does start memory fragments appearing now and then, they raise so many questions, and Christine gradually starts to uncover the nasty truth about what really happened to her …

That’s enough of the plot, except to say that it kept me guessing for ages, and the sudden realisation of what was going to happen in the end sent a cold chill through me!  It kept me reading compulsively; if I’d been able to, I would have read it through in one session, but normal life intervened, but I was itching all that time to finish the book.

If I had one criticism, it’s a practical one in that Christine’s journal entries are over-detailed. She wouldn’t have had enough time to read the ever-expanding book every day and to add to it in the time available. The gradual reveal through her journal entries was brilliantly handled though and as each new fact is uncovered, it makes the reader re-evaluate what they thought they knew – we’re with Christine in this voyage of discovery. There is a certain amount of reiteration, especially in the first half of the book, but like in the film Groundhog Day, (the only similarity!), each day is actually not quite the same as the one before.

There are no author photos on the sleeve of this book, and the initials also give nothing away. I was really surprised to find that SJ is a bloke, as most of the psychological thrillers I’ve read have been by women; he captures Christine’s daily panic and increasing furtiveness really well. Christine’s waking up each morning feeling twenty-something and being confronted with an older body in the mirror makes us sympathize with her instantly (don’t we all secretly believe we’re still that young!). I really enjoyed this gripping psychological thriller. (9/10)

Source: Own copy.  To explore further on Amazon UK, click : Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson.  Pub in hardback by Doubleday, 366 pages.

Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

For anyone who likes the occasional bit of property porn, looking at property websites and TV programmes to see how the other half live, the premise of Lasting Damage, Hannah’s sixth psychochiller would be the perfect nightmare. Imagine starting up a virtual tour of a big house and seeing a dead body in a pool of blood in the lounge…

Well this is what happens to Connie Bowskill one night when she can’t sleep, but by the time she drags husband Kit out of bed to see it, the tour has started again and the body is gone.  Was she just imagining it? Connie who is a rather neurotic and paranoid housewife can’t let it go, she contacts the police, hoping to speak to DC Simon Waterhouse, whom she’s encountered before.  Only problem is that Simon is on his honeymoon – he finally married his on-off girlfriend Charlie Zailer, a former cop. But luckily Simon’s colleague takes her seriously enough to contact the police in the city where the house and ‘body’ were.

I’m not even going to attempt to try to explain any more of the plot than that. As you might guess, there’s an awful lot more to the story – Connie knows suspects something – it involves her husband and houses in Cambridge – they nearly moved there once. It’s also enough to get Simon and Charlie back early from their honeymoon.  The plot gets phenomenally twisted and very complex, and although the book was unputdownable, I needed breaks to even begin to assimilate what was happening – only for it to all be turned on its head again when I dived back in!

In Connie and Kit, Hannah has created marvelously complicated characters.  Connie, the small town girl who works for the family firm, swept off her feet by the Cambridge graduate who promises her a different life, but finds she can’t cut the ties to her manipulative family.  Kit has dreams, but appears to have settled for second best in a chocolate box cottage, seemingly content with their routine. Connie, who starts off as neurotic, gets more and more paranoid as things unfold. Kit you’re never sure of – sometimes you believe him, others you just can’t – no wonder Connie loses her trust in her soulmate.

As always in Hannah’s novels, the Spilling constabulary are in the background; taking us out of the claustrophobic nightmare that is Connie’s life, into the other one that is Simon and Charlie’s relationship! But you can’t let that get in the way of a good murder, and once Simon, an extraordinarily intuitive detective, is on the case, his new wife has to take a back seat. But it’s the Cambridge police that made me giggle half way through, when Connie quotes a phrase from a poem, only for the detective opposite to reply with the full verse from A E Housman. “Only in Cambridge would the cops quote poetry at you.”  

I’ve read Sophie’s first three novels and loved all of them, especially Hurting Distance and The Point of Rescue (reviewed here). I jumped reading books 4 & 5 because I wanted to read this one so badly after she told me about it at an author event I attended last summer. In retrospect I wished I hadn’t opted to read out of order, as I shall now have to go back and find out how Simon and Charlie finally got together properly. Also a character returns from her first novel Little Face, which although not vital to the story, may perplex some readers.

Hannah’s writing is very involving – you feel you’re right inside the minds of her lead characters and can sense the creeping paranoia that envelopes them. You get desperate to find out what happens, truly concerned for them, yet glad it’s not happening to you of course – that little vicarious thrill that keeps you reading books of this ilk – she does it very well indeed.

If I had to describe this novel in one word, I’d call it ‘Twisted’, so twisted that it was sometimes almost too clever, but I never did know what was coming next – it was always a shock!  I will read any novels that Sophie Hannah writes, but this one, whilst good, was not quite up to her best for me – (7.5/10).

Source: Own copy.   Hodder paperback, 464 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link).

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