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S J Watson – Before I Go To Sleep

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If I should forget before I wake…

Publisher: Black Swan (Random House)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-552-16413-9
First Published: 28th April 2011
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

She wakes up in a bed next to a man she does not recognise. The mirror shows a woman much older than she is. It’s been years; Christine discovers she’s had an accident that means every night her memory is erased. She must trust her husband, the man in the bed.

Before I Go To Sleep is a fast-paced psychological thriller that repeats itself intentionally and remains a page turner from start to finish.

Christine is an unreliable narrator of a particular kind – if she could be, she’d be trustworthy. She’s as factually accurate as possible; you have to keep your wits about you. Due to Christine’s role as narrator, and the first-person viewpoint that entails, as the reader you are as in the dark as she is about everything. The only advantage you have is that Watson wants and needs to clue you in more than than he does Christine. The character takes things at face value so whilst it’s fair to say there’s an element of growing together – you and her – your journey is particularly engrossing.

The clue is in the genre; Watson doesn’t provide too many red herrings because he doesn’t need to. The success of this book lies in its ability to make you doubt and dissect everything and indeed you come to form most every possible conclusion out there. There’s a section towards the end where the narrative crawls, almost to a halt, and if you didn’t know otherwise you’d say Watson wrote too much; in actual fact what happens is that, having now exhausted all the possibilities, you’re just waiting to find out which it is.

If you worked it out early, you may be less enthused, though it’s likely you’ll appreciate what Watson has done and the work that went into it. This is perhaps where timing comes in – if you’ve read lots of books that sport the same/similar conclusion you likely won’t feel as compelled. This is the sort of book it pays to mull over after finishing, to look again at what Watson has done, at the editing that must have happened, at the timing, the structure, of it all.

The writing is good. There’s no time for descriptive passages and you wouldn’t remember them anyway. There are plenty of questions posed in the book and all are answered. Only one or two plot points may inspire frowns – situations at the end it would spoil the story to write about – the morality of relatives to patients, that sort of thing, if that makes sense. Are parts convenient? Yes. Does it matter? Not really.

Before I Go To Sleep forces you, at some undisclosed point, to look at a tough subject. Its mainstay is, as Renée Knight said recently, something that works because it’s real and could happen to anyone. It’s scary, it’s shocking, and it’s one heck of a ride.

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Linda Stift – The Empress And The Cake

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There’s no way out. There’s every way out.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 172
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67030-4
First Published: 2007; 30th September 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Stierhunger (Bulimia)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

A young woman is approached by an older woman, asked if she’d share a cake because the cake is too large for one person. The older woman’s clothes are very old fashioned, from the 1800s, and her companion is similarly dressed. Though she avoids rich foods, the young woman agrees to take half the cake; after the purchase the older woman suggests sharing first her own half. The young woman finds she cannot say ‘no’, and whilst she believes it was her choice, it sets a precedent for the future.

The Empress And The Cake is an Austrian novella about three women of different generations who are connected. It’s got a bizarre, strange, atmosphere, a lot of history, looks at mental and physical health, and sports a brilliant uniqueness.

There are four major characters in this book, three in the present and one in the past. The present-day characters are our unnamed narrator, Frau Hohenembs, and the latter’s friend/servant, Ida. The fourth is the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, of the mid to late 1800s. Elisabeth is included via descriptions written by a friend – we view these scenes as reflections – and her presence in the novella is to show the basic ideas behind Stift’s drawing of Frau Hohenembs and Ida and thus the connection she has created between the factual Empress and the fictional characters.

This reviewer would recommend doing a bit of research into the personality and life of the Empress prior to starting the book. The book’s meaning won’t be lost without it but some knowledge of her will really enhance your reading experience and allow you to figure out what might happen, which when you consider the fact the Empress is likely well-known in Austria and this is an Austrian book, just makes sense. Elisabeth’s story is quite fascinating; she was reluctantly married to an Emperor who adored her and spent her time away from the court she disliked, often travelling incognito. Her mother-in-law practically removed her from her children’s lives and she was assassinated by a man who wanted to assassinate a royal and hadn’t been able to get close to his first choice, nor his second.

Part of the connection between the characters and something that is a major theme is an obsession with slimness, which in the unnamed heroine’s case is a disorder, bulimia. The book gets into very graphic detail at times so that Stift can show the way bulimia affects a person. It is a very frank portrayal, Stift’s character telling herself, or us, how this will be her last vomiting session, how she’s going to stop weighing herself so much – she’ll weigh herself several times a day instead of a dozen, for example (a difference the reader sees as inconsequential) – how she’ll start eating more again, only for her to revert almost instantly. The heroine is bound by her disorder but does not see it – she views herself as in control of it. And her increased contact with Frau Hohenembs furthers her it. (What’s interesting here is that the way the passage of time is shown in the book, the rough slowness that can be attributed to Stift’s detailing and repetition of the regular makes it seem as though more time passes between decisions than it truly does.)

Similarly she views herself as in control of her visitations to Frau Hohenembs’ apartment, and in control of the choice to go out, which happens often, with said lady and her servant; the truth is different. Not quite so different is her lack of control of her eating disorder, but a big part of the psycho-thriller aspect of the novella is the dwindling nature of personal agency. This is where the plot thread of cocaine comes in; the drug is not referenced directly for some time and we do not know whether the heroine and Ida take the drug, but there’s a vagueness, an ambiguity, in the story, that lets you imagine what is most likely. What, for example, was in that cake? Stift does not say either way – just sugar, or something more addictive? – that’s up to you to decide. (Does sugar itself perhaps reflect the addiction?)

Empress Elisabeth wanted to be very slim, and favoured being stitched into her clothes. Whilst the present-day fictional part of the story does not go this far, the factual forms a sort of backbone. Frau Hohenembs’s obsession with Elisabeth (does she think she is her or want to emulate her?) never wavers, and as such the heroine falls into line behind her. This thread is not resolved neatly, but then it doesn’t need to be. It’s the connection that Stift wants to show rather than any reason d’etre.

On the gruesome front it should be noted there are visits to a ‘specimen’ museum. These, as well as the vomiting scenes, if the reader finds them difficult, can be skipped because the importance in them lies in the sentiment rather than the scenes themselves – so long as you’ve the cause in mind, flicking past shouldn’t be a problem.

In regards to the translation, it reads well. Jamie Bulloch seems to have opted for a balance between literal word meaning and flow; there are some German words you may want to look up but the rough meaning is there in the text.

It’s hard to say exactly why The Empress And The Cake is so good. It has something to do with the complexity, the number of ideas in it, and the amount of thought that’s gone into it, but enough to say it’s excellent. It’s bizarre, random, and totally unique, and it makes you think, so much.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Frédéric Dard – Bird In A Cage

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Making a U-turn.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 117
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27199-4
First Published: 1961; 2nd June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 3rd June 2016
Rating: 4/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Monte-charge (The Elevator)
Translated by: David Bellos

Albert has just returned home. His mother has died and after staying away for several years he’s returned without his girlfriend, who has also died. Coming to terms with the changes, he decides to visit the expensive restaurant he’d always wished he could visit as a child. There at a table nearby are a young girl and her mother. The mother is more than happy for him to chat to her daughter and seems interested in him, but there’s something about the woman and he just can’t put his finger on it.

Bird In A Cage is a slick novella that looks at a probable murder from the point of view of a potential conspirator. It’s a book that gets straight to the point and has no room for deviations in its storyline.

How reliable is Albert? That is a question and a half – from the start you get the feeling he can’t be trusted, but is that because of your knowledge of this genre or is it down to the character himself? For that matter how reliable is anyone here? Dard deals with few characters, a grand total of four specific ones, in fact, so there’s lots of room for suspicion. He holds your attention. Indeed due to the shortness of the tale, its pithy structure and overall atmosphere, you’re likely to finish this book within a couple of hours. Perhaps it was created this way, perhaps not, but Dard’s conciseness and detailing means you won’t feel the need to put the book down and that’s really the best way to read it.

A smidgen of mystery drips from the text – is what Albert’s seeing true? Depending on what aspect of the book is taking your fancy at any given moment you may well gain a suspicion as to what’s happening but if you do it will be only a half-formed idea. If you have spotted the clue you may well feel the age of the book more than a reader who hasn’t. This is to say the book is slightly outdated due to its atmosphere and the obvious now-historical nature of it, but it’s just so different and succinct that the age has only a minor impact. Unlike the work of Georges Simenon, who Dard has been compared to (and they knew each other), Bird In A Cage is written in such a way that it’ll likely entertain a wider age range.

The ending is deliciously ambiguous; there’s some wrapping up of the story but it’s only that which directly affects Albert – the rest is left unfinished in a literal way (it hasn’t happened yet). In saying this I’m reflecting on the way the story is told as a whole – whilst the plot is important, it’s Albert’s role in it all that is key, and the ending is one that, if you hadn’t already been doing a lot of thinking, will make you want to interact with the text. It brings a whole different flavour to the book, mixing two opposing tastes in one dish to create something that sounds unworkable but is really a triumph.

Enough with the food analogies. Bird In A Cage is a very solid, good book.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Ben Fergusson – The Spring Of Kasper Meier

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Blow a kiss, fire a gun.

Publisher: Abacus (Little, Brown)
Pages: 386
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-349-13976-0
First Published: 15th April 2014 in translation; 17th June 2015
Date Reviewed: 15th March 2016
Rating: 3/5

In the year following the end of WWII, the rubble of ruined buildings sprawls across the streets of Berlin. Kasper, a black market trader, is not acquainted with any rubble women until one day he is stopped by one who wants him to find a pilot. She won’t say why but to Kasper it’s clear there’s some sort of underground factor to it.

The Spring Of Kasper Meier is a thriller that looks at a certain aspect of the aftermath of war. It’s categorised under the thriller genre, but doesn’t quite match it.

This is a novel wherein the vast majority of the book doesn’t do anything to recommend itself but the last 50 pages are excellent. It’s a case of the reader having no real idea as to what’s happening, and that’s not good here. There’s no suspense until those last pages start and it just feels like a lost chance. Nine out of ten times you don’t have a clue what’s happening or why you’re reading about a person and even if you manage to figure some of it out the raison d’etre will likely still evade you. It’s the lack of any clues that is the problem.

The writing doesn’t help. There’s a decided lack of commas which means clauses run together so you have to work out what the sentence is saying. Of facial expressions there are too many in each piece of dialogue – speaking then smiling then speaking then surprised then speaking and laughing, that sort of thing. All tell, no show.

The history’s good. That’s the one plus side of the telling – you get a good picture of the period. One of the themes is sexuality, in this case being gay in 40s Europe. It’s dealt with well – there’s commentary when needed but otherwise Fergusson just gets on with it. As the majority of the characters and certainly the main characters are German, there is more time spent on Kasper’s romantic history than, for example, the plight of the Jews. Women also get a look in, though mostly it’s in the form of Kasper’s friendship with Eva.

Like other recent writers of the occupation of Germany by the allied forces, Fergusson doesn’t shy from showing the realities of German life and the way that not all those in the allied forces were good. He shows the horror of it, reminding us that regular people faired the same way everywhere.

The Spring Of Kasper Meier, then, is a book of good history, but otherwise isn’t so great. If you’re able to figure out – or guess correctly – what’s happening early on, you may enjoy it more, but most will want to keep it on the to-be-read pile for a while longer.

I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.

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Paula Hawkins – The Girl On The Train

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She may not see you when you’re sleeping, but she knows when you’re awake.

Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
Pages: 310
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-857-52231-3
First Published: 13th January 2015
Date Reviewed: 14th January 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Every day Rachel takes the train to work and back home; she has a favourite house on the route whose occupants she’s made up life stories for. She gets used to their routine, seeing them in their garden most days that summer but one day the man stands alone and the news breaks that the woman has disappeared. Rachel had seen her with another man and it occurs to her that she might be able to help with the inquiries.

The Girl On The Train is a chilling psychological thriller with no reliable characters. Constantly compared to Gone Girl, there are some similarities but the atmosphere differs.

It’s the page-turner factor that stands out most in this respect. Whilst other thrillers make you want to speed through their pages, Hawkins’ book stays steady, a bit like a steadily moving train, ironically. You do want to keep reading because the execution is excellent, bar none, but there’s a subtlety to it, the feeling that you could put the book down, it’s just you don’t want to at present. You will finish the book quickly enough whilst feeling you were able to relax. Yes, for all grimness you’ll enjoy an even ride.

To this excellent execution then; this book is well-paced, well-plotted, and well-edited. In hindsight you can see that Hawkins gives the whodunnit away fairly early, in fact when you look back you can see the neon lights blazing above the person’s head. The reason you don’t see, straight away, who the criminal is is because of all the work Hawkins has put in to fleshing out the characters. She makes you sceptical of everyone – everyone is unreliable, in part because you come to feel they should be (that’s not to say they are in fact reliable, more that Hawkins messes your head up). The book feeds off a sort of reader prejudice, if you will, in which Hawkins plants an idea and lets you run with it. But of course you’re right to be sceptical – as much as this author-reader interaction is a game, it’s something that’s important. The nature of the situation requests that you learn how to identify who you’re looking for, to work out how to spot lies and manipulation.

Aside from their unreliability, none of the characters are particularly likeable. You’ll find yourself wondering if perhaps you should be sympathetic – and right at that time Hawkins comes in and messes with your head again. This is an author who is on the ball, who has thought of everything.

There obviously comes a time when you work it out but it’s not at the end. No, Hawkins keeps the book going for a good amount of time after this reveal, skirting the line between perfect length and too much, so you can get that bookish satisfaction. She keeps up a thin thread of mystery right until the end.

Rachel’s life is marred by her failed marriage. It’s marred by her childlessness, the depression this caused, the drinking it resulted in. The character’s unreliability is down in part to her inability to retain memories, due to drink and sometimes a sort of blanking out of the event. Is it convenient? Most certainly, but we wouldn’t have a book if she just knew everything. In this way, The Girl On The Train echoes Elizabeth Is Missing; both books feature heroines (anti-heroine in Hawkins’ case?) trying to solve puzzles they’ve forgotten the clues to. Rachel sports bruises she can’t remember getting, realising that’s par for the cause, but it makes her think nonetheless.

Through Rachel, because of her utter despair, Hawkins is able to delve into issues. She can have Rachel repeat things, which might be annoying but is understandable. Whilst unlikeable in a way you know is down to genre, Rachel comes across as real. Her issues are grounded in reality, and despite your uncertainty as to her role in the disappearance Hawkins urges you to empathise. This is a woman who needed help and didn’t get it, who has gone crazy from pain and instead of support has received scorn, at least from those she wants support from. She wears out those who care. Part of this whole thread, this subplot of sorts, relies on the ending and shows how easy it can be for someone to slip through the net. Whilst the emphasis is of course on the thriller aspect, Hawkins’ writing about what Rachel’s dealing with is important. The other characters, particularly the two other narrators are focused on, too, if for a lesser amount of time. In the case of issues this is largely a book about women but it’s not exclusive.

The writing itself is pleasant. It flows well, Hawkins makes good use of language and whilst it’s not going to be called literary fiction any time soon in terms of the text it’s not too far from it either.

The Girl On The Train isn’t going to wow everyone and it’s the sort of book that is ripe to disappoint if your expectations are too high. It’s best to go into it with a view to having a good reading time, to enjoy the journey an author can take you on. It isn’t Gone Girl and your feelings for that book won’t necessarily translate to this one whichever way you felt. Take this book as an individual and for what it is; hop aboard and take a seat.

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