Jonathan Coe ‘Middle England’

‘She couldn’t stand politicians,’ Colin said, bringing some subterranean train of thought to the surface, and not needing to specify who he meant by ‘she’. He spoke in a low voice, thick with regret and repressed emotion. ‘Thought they were all as bad as each other. All on the fiddle, every one of them. Fiddling their expenses, not declaring their interests, holding down half a dozen jobs on the side …’ Benjamin nodded, while remembering that in fact it was Colin himself, not his late wife, who was obsessed with the venality of politicians.

Jonathan Coe has chosen the Trotter Family and their Birmingham base from his previous books, The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle, as the medium to study Pre and early Post Brexit Britain, the latent differences between the Leavers and the Remainers, that were waiting to be cleaved open. The opening quote from Colin Trotter, Benjamin Trotters father, maybe in his eighties, is of course something you can hear in any democracy in the world, squeaky clean is rare and of course this sort of resentment is like dry tinder.

Basically the fifty somethings in this book were not too interested or informed, typified by Benjamin who was too interested in his own navel and too timid to even have an opinion or his friend Doug, a freelance journalist who writes articles under severe time pressure, even his 16 year old daughter Coriander can see he is out of touch with what is happening in the country. But amongst all of the strands in this book, The Brexit story and its strife is carried by Sophie Trotter, Benjamin’s niece, in her early thirties and the man she chooses to marry, Ian who she meets on a driving training course after being caught speeding. This was never going to be a straightforward marriage. After Ian is injured in the Birmingham riots and Sophie drives his mother to the hospital, the tooothpaste is let out of the tube. Yes there is rascism, and resentment but maybe only that:

“Where will it end Sophie where will it all end this dreadful business end”?
Of course Sophie knew what she meant by this dreadful business but it was the middle of a quiet Saturday afternoon in august they were driving along the A435 not far from the Wivel roundabout and the sun shone placidly on the roofs of cars, the traffic signs, the petrol stations, the hedgerows, the pubs, the garden centres, the convenience stores, all the familiar landmarks of modern England. It was hard at that moment to see the world as a dreadful place or a very inspiring one for that matter, she was about to formulate some bland response, oh you know, life goes on , these things blow over after a while, when Helena added
“He was quite tight you know rivers of blood, he was the only one brave enough to say it”.
Sophie froze when she heard these words and the platitudes died on her lips. The silence that opened up between her and Helena was fathomless now, here it was after all the subject that wouldn’t, couldn’t be discussed the subject that provided people more than any other, mortified people more than any other, because to bring it up was to strip off your own clothes, and tear off the other persons clothes and to be forced to stare at each other naked, unprotected with no way of averting your eyes any reply she made to Helena at this moment, any reply that showed her own differing views would immediately mean confronting the unspeakable truth that sophie and everyone like her, and Helena and everyone like her, might be living cheek by jowl in the same country but they also lived in different universes and these universies were separated by a wall infinitely high, impermeable, a wall built out of fear and suspicion and even perhaps those most English of all qualities shame and embarrassment. Impossible to face this, the only practical thing to do was to ignore it, but for how long was that practical in fact?

Both Sophie and Ian suffer career setbacks, Ian, an alpha male loses out on a promotion to a woman, an Asian woman and he fosters resentment, a feeling of having had something that should have been his taken away by the PC crowd. Sophie is called out on Twitter by Coriander for something seemingly innocent telling a transgender student who had dithered on an essay between two choices, that she couldn’t make her mind up. Sophie was suspended pending an investigation, as Ian says Guilty until proven innocent. Ian and his mother cannot understand that Sophie is not bitter about this. And the added pressure of The Brexit debate tears their marriage apart, or was it always going to end this way:

Their relationship councillor Lorna told them that many of the couples she was seeing at the moment had mentioned Brexit as a key factor in their growing estrangement. Now I usually start by asking each of you the same question. Sophie, why are you so angry that Ian voted leave and Ian why are you so angry that Sophie voted remain? Sophie had thought for a long time before answering, I suppose because it makes me think that as a person he’s not as open as I thought he was, that his basic model for a relationship comes down to antagonism and competition not cooperation. Lorna had nodded and turned to Ian who said it makes me think that she’s very naive that she lives in a bubble and can’t see how other people around her might have a different opinion to hers and this gives a certain attitude an attitude of moral superiority. To which Lorna had said, what’s interesting about both those answers is that neither of you mentioned politics.

A long and relatively verbiose book, but you know what you’re getting when you buy a Coe. This book is maybe the analysis needed to begin the slow process of being able to live together, having different opinions and who knows, respecting opposite points of view. But don’t hold your breath.

First Published in English as “Middle England” in 2019 by Penguin Books Ltd.

Peter Hannington ‘A Single Source’

Nawal tried to remember when she’d stopped being scared. A few weeks ago she would have turned tail at the sight of a police van–the smallest hint of trouble. 2B6816D8-026B-40D9-B167-8AC87892C425Now, when she heard sirens and the swell of noise coming from the other side of Tahrir, from close to the governing party headquarters, she shouldered her rucksack and practically ran in that direction.

In this story centred around the Arab spring in Tahrir Square, the second book by Peter Hannington, with the reporter William Carver at the centre, Hannington, an ex-BBC reporter himself tells us how big stories and scoops come together in the modern age where anyone with a smartphone can monitor events or report them. There are four themes  to this story, firstly the events in Tahrir Square where Carver, arriving ahead of the field, makes contact through a young girl on the hotel staff who helps him unofficially with translations with Nawal, an active participant in the events unfolding in the square, see the opening quote, but also a Twitter source:

@tsquarelawan New Cairo Hospital needs help. Anyone with blood type O please go. Big shortage of type O!

The second theme playing out in parallel is the story of Gabriel and Gebre, two Eritreans trying to join Europe where we meet them as they are talking with the first link in the chain of human smugglers who will cheat them along the way:

I told old Gabriel that I would treat you well; that the price he has paid will be the total price. I promised him this.’ Gebre studied Mr Adam. He wondered what this man’s promise was worth. ‘So, you two will not get the normal trip … you will get the VIP trip, you understand?

The third theme plays out in London between the permanent secretary to the defence minister and his press officer, Robert Mariscal, an ex-journalist and colleague of Carvers gone over to the dark side, payed to put spin on information for the press. And finally the fourth theme is Carver himself, the newshound, known for losing interest in any story that becomes mainstream.

When Nawal inadvertently tips off Carver to a story within the story concerning supplying the regime with a capability to fight the demonstrators, how much danger will this place her in? Just how far will The permanent secretary back the wealthy and influential  defence contractors through his press officer? Is Robert Mariscal now totally engaged in his role as a press officer despite his journalistic background.

In the modern day version of the slave trade that is people smuggling, some things don’t change and when the brothers learn that the smugglers are making money on more than one leg of their triangular trade, from Eritrea to Libya, from Libya to Egypt and from Egypt to Eritrea, what would it take for them to want to tell anyone?

And finally, how far is Carver prepared to go for a story risking not only his life but the lives of those associated to his scoop?

This story kept a realistic feel to it throughout, a readable thriller.

First Published in English as “A Single Source” in 2019 by Two Roads.
*** my translation

Jeniffer Egan ‘Manhattan Beach’

He eyed Kerrigan, searching for the weakness. Money wasn’t his object, or he’d have demanded it before singing. What, then? In a mick it was usually booze,but Kerrigan hadn’t the look of a lush. Nor was there much propensity for violence in those scrappy limbs, though he’d likely fight hard in self-defense. Women? Micks were famously prudish, faithful to their blowsy wives—perhaps recalling the bonny colleens they’d been before the assembly line of children, or from fear of their drunken, bellicose priests.

Anna’s Father, Eddie Kerrigan was a trusted bag carrier for Irish organised crime around Manhattan beach, he could be trusted not to be noticed as he carried money from one place to the next. The book opens at a pivotal moment in his life as, on a Sunday, he meets up with Dexter Styles, looking to make the next step up and work for the Italians proposing, as we learn later in the book, to watch Styles’ different operations, not being noticed, and spot the people that were cheating him. Styles eyed up Kerrigan to try to understand his motives as illustrated in the opening quote. Kerrigan had gone to Styles’ house with his daughter Anna who was only eight years old at the time and we see what is happening in this adult world through Anna’s eyes.

In early 1930’s America Anna was living at home with her parents and her seriously crippled sister, where their only fun in life was the occasional visits from her aunt, Brianne whose stories only Anna believed:

“And the trumpeter?” he asked. “Oh, he’s a real lover boy. Curls like Rudy Vallee.” She would need money again soon enough. Brianne was long past her dancing days, and even then her chief resource had always been her beaus. But fewer men were flush now, and a girl with bags under her eyes and a boozy roll at the waist was less likely to land one. Eddie found a way to give his sister money whenever she asked, even if it meant borrowing from the shylock. He dreaded what she might become otherwise.

And then one day Eddie disappears for good. Fast forward and Anna is working for the war effort at Manhattan beach where she dreams of becoming a diver working on war ships and when she finally gets to meet Lieutenant Axel who could make her wishes come true she comes up full against anti female prejudice:

“You’re interested,” Lieutenant Axel said, gazing up at Anna as she stood before his desk. He’d not risen when the marine had shown her into his office. “Yes, sir,” she said. “Extremely interested.” “And what gave you the impression that diving would be interesting?” She hesitated, not entirely sure. “I’ve watched divers on the barge,” she said. “From Pier C. At lunchtime. And after my shift.” She followed each utterance with a pause, awaiting some indication that he had understood. “You’ve watched the divers at lunchtime,” he finally said. As this was not a question, and as her words, reverberated through Lieutenant Axel, had a way of sounding ridiculous,

Anna, whilst working at the docks was one of the few women who were not married, not being trusted entirely by the ‘marrieds’, she meets up with Nell, another single woman who the one day disappears and Anna the finds her at a night club where she finds that single women working on the docks can find other ways easier ways to get by:

“I haven’t any job at all,” Nell said. “Unless you count trying to look smashing all the time so Hammond doesn’t toss me out.” They seated themselves among a group who occupied several tables near the dance floor. Anna noticed Marco and reddened when he looked in her direction. But he was watching Nell. “Would he really throw you out?” Anna whispered. “Hammond is a pig,” Nell said, which dumbfounded Anna, Hammond himself being inches away, his arm around Nell’s shoulders. Anna averted her gaze as if she’d been guilty of an indiscretion. “Then why do you—” “Money,” Nell said brightly. “He’s loaded with money, and he pays for everything. He lives in an eight-bedroom mansion in Rye, New York, with his wife and four children. He’ll never leave them—I was nuts to think he would. Isn’t that right, darling,” she called to Hammond. “Anna worked with me at the Naval Yard. Hammond doesn’t like to hear about that. He thinks girls shouldn’t work at all; they should just dream up new ways to entrance him.”

It is then at this club that she meets Dexter Styles, for the first time since that day at his house on Manhattan beach, using a false name so that he doesn’t link her to Eddie. As she better gets to know Styles, her knew life diving and her quest for her disappeared father lead her and Styles to the truth about her father. In parallel Styles is asked to take Badger from Chicago under his wing and is amazed at his naivety:

Dexter marveled at his insolence. It made him grasp something that had eluded him until that instant: Badger thought he was protected. He’d mistaken Mr. Q.’ s helping hand for immunity of some kind—apparently unaware that Mr. Q.’ s own brother had vanished in the course of his ascent, along with at least two cousins. This misapprehension explained Badger’s exaggerated deference toward Dexter, the twist of mockery inside it.

But then the wheel turns full circle and called late at night to a boathouse by one of Mr. Q.’s sons, Dexter finds himself in the same position with Badger as Eddie had with him all those years ago.

There are twists in this story and so I don’t think there was a spoiler yet here in Jennifer piece of historical fiction. An interesting and well researched story.

First Published in English as “Manhattan Beach” in 2017 by Scribner.

Sam Byers ‘Perfidious Albion’

Its only right that we should try to share what we have with those who have less. But what we have in Britain now is a society that asks those who work to share their earnings with those that scrounge; those who have grown up here to share their hard-fought space with those that have just arrived; and those who deserve their place to share it with those who merely envy it.

Sam Buyers’ Perfidious Albion is a dark satire on post Brexit Britain, his story takes place in Edmunsbury, a small town in southeastern Britain where at the outset the town is trying to redefine itself, the story opens at a party at Jacques DeCoverley’s where we meet a varying group of people that have left London and are trying to be someone in the opinion-sphere, from DeCoverley who writes about pavements to Robert, a left leaning blogger and his girlfriend Jess, the main protagonist of the book, the narrator observes her situation, for example:

Jess popped to the toilet to tweet. Back in the room, an assortment of indistinct men – bearded and earnest and flushed with credentials – talked at her or for her, but never quite to her.

Jess, after having been seriously abused online had set up multiple false identities for blogging such as Byron Stroud who had become very influential within the opinion-sphere, partly because he only wrote about the opinion-sphere and Julia Benjamin, a feminist, who had become the main online critic of Jess’ boyfriend Robert.

The Larchwood estate, a failing housing project, worth much more empty than with its current residents is being emptied and then Buyers Paints a none too flattering picture of the opportunistic right wing party, England Always, and its local representative Hugo Bennington with the opening quote representing one of his initial quotes. Through the events within the book, Buyers by way of satire, deconstructs the use of fear and through this the linked subjects of violence and race by opportunistic right-wing political parties, for instance the analysis of audience response by his assistant Teddy:

‘That spike is just a huge upsurge up people calling me a twat the moment I appeared on television.’
‘Isn’t it amazing?’
‘How is that amazing?’
‘Because it’s free publicity. You can’t buy this kind of amplification, Hugo.’
‘But it’s negative publicity.’
‘No such thing. Negative publicity is like antimatter. It’s an urban myth.’
‘I don’t think antimatter is an urban myth Teddy.’
‘Alright then, show me some antimatter.’
‘Well, obviously I can’t show you some antimatter, because it’s—’
‘Right. If you can’t show it to me, it doesn’t exist. You see what I’m saying? It might very well actually exist, but to all intents and purposes, it doesn’t.’

There is a tentacular secretive tech firm in Edmunsbury which are at the centre of much of the intrigue and for which Buyers tells us something of Jess’ and of course probably his own view of modern corruption:

Jess wasn’t sure when the architectural love affair with glass was going to come to an end but whenever it was it wouldn’t be soon enough. As politics and commerce had become murkier, so the buildings in which vital transactions took place had become ever more resplendently clear, as if recognizing that in the flattened homogeneity of the present all actions, both benign and malicious, now looked the same: a squint at a screen, a series of keystrokes, the choreography of global espionnage now no different to the microritual of online shopping.

And finally in the build up there is Robert, a none too successful blogger for an online newsletter trying to get by and being manoeuvred by a mixture between his own ambition to exist and his editor:

‘People are being lied to. People are being intimidated. Are you trying to tell me people don’t want to read about—’
‘They want to read about things that are cool, funny or evil. That’s the holy trinity.’

The powder keg is then ready and waiting for the spark, which is provided by an unfortunate tweet as Trina, a coloured worker at the techfirm when watching Bennington can’t listen anymore and tweets #whitemalegenocide. lol. This is the spark that leads to the chain of events where the true satire really gets underway with the instrumentalisation of this tweet.

A very much up to date biting satire following in the tradition of Tom Sharp.

First Published in English as “Perfidious Albion” in 2018 by Faber & Faber.

Tahar Ben Jelloun ‘Marriage of Pleasure’

For once, this evening I’m going to tell you a story of love, an overwhelming impossible love, lived fully until their last breathe by each of these characters. But as you will see, behind this miraculous story there is hate, contempt, wickedness and cruelty. Its normal, that’s how people are. I preferred you should know so that nothing would surprise you.***

In the city of Fès in Morocco, each spring, a storyteller sets up his equipment and waits for a crowd to form, this is how Ben Jelloun’s tale of three generations of a Marocain family begins, and then to further warn us and thus distance us from the substance of the story , he tells if of its contents as illustrated in the opening quote. The story then pulls us in. The storyteller, Goya, tells us of a pious and upright merchant in the 1940’s, Amin, whose father and grandfather before him, have for generations made the two week trip to Dakar in Senegal by train then wagon and finally by camel where they passed several months negotiating spices and had contracted pleasure marriages whilst there. Amin who wished to respect the rules of Islam then consults the Moulay Ahmad, a professor of theology:

Moulay Ahmad reassured him. He quoted verse 24 of the sourate “women” : “you have the obligation to use your wealth to marry honourably and not to live in common law. It is a requirement that you hand over the arranged dowry to she with whom you have entered into marriage…” in other words, it is legal for a man away from home for long periods, to enter into a marriage of “pleasure”, “of enjoyment”, “of well being”, which guarantees the wife a dowry and the respect of the one she marries. God established this to fight against prostitution.***

This is the the basis of the story, each time Amin goes to Senegal he contracts a “pleasure marriage” with Nabou, a young Peul, with whom he discovers a sexual freedom and satisfaction he has never known with his first “white” wife the Lalla Fatma. After one trip he cannot imagine leaving her and decides to bring her back to Fès as his second wife. Goya in several parts of the story lets us understand how difficult this may be, he tells us of the slave market in Fès that was active until a few decades prior to the story, of the way the peasants from the land when they fall on hard times are used as unpaid cooks and helpers by the méchants of Fès, of stories of other African wives that are brought back to Morocco and used as sex slaves and how even the well meaning men have no stay over the way the first, “white” wife runs the house. As if to confirm this as Lalla Fatma says:

You’ve brought into this house, misfortune, evil and discord, you want to marry a servant, a negress whose skin colour betrays the darkness of her soul, but does she even have a soul? I wonder. And finally you’re a disappointment, do whatever you will! I’ll take care of my children’s education, I’ll keep them away from that wicked, stinking thing. You’re neither the first nor the last to risk a family for a negress allied to Satan. God is great.***

Nabou then gives birth to twins, one black and one white, Hassan and Houcine. From the treatment of Nabou and that of her sons we follow the differences in racial treatment of her two sons, of Houcine’s integration and of Hassan’s difficulties. Discrimination seem to improve with time over the decades until the wheel comes full circle and faced with the mass migration across Marocco of Africans towards Europe, the attitude to these darker skinned Africans hardens until one day Nabou’s grandson and Hassan’s son, Salim, is rounded up with other people of the same skin colour and deported to Senegal where after some time discovering his grandmother’s roots he sets off on foot for Europe.

First Published in French as “Le Marriage de Plaisir” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une fois n’est pas coutume, ce soir je m’en vais vous conter une histoire d’amour, un amour fou et impossible pourtant vécu jusqu’au dernier souffle par chacun de ses personnages. Mais comme vous le verrez, derrière cette histoire miraculeuse, il y a aussi beaucoup de haine et de mépris, de méchanceté et de cruauté. C’est normal. L’homme est ainsi. Je préférais que vous le sachiez pour que vous ne vous étonniez de rien.

…Moulay Ahmad le rassura. Il lui cita le verset 24 de la sourate “Les femmes” : “… il vous est loisible d’utiliser vos biens pour vous marier honnêtement et non pour vivre en concubinage. C’est une obligation pour vous de remettre la dot convenue à celle avec laquelle vous aurez consommé le mariage…” Autrement dit, il est légal, pour un homme absent de son foyer pour de longues périodes, de contracter un mariage “de plaisir”, “de jouissance”, “de bien-être”, qui garantit à la femme une dot et le respect de celui qui l’a épousée. Dieu a institué cela pour lutter contre la prostitution.

Tu as fait entrer dans cette maison le malheur, le péché et la discorde, tu veux épouser une domestique, une négresse dont la couleur de peau trahit sa noirceur d’âme, mais a-t-elle une âme? Je me le demande enfin tu es décevant fais ce que tu veux moi je m’occuperai de l’éducation de mes enfants je les tiendrai loin de cette chose mal faisant, mal odorant, tu es ni le premier ni le dernier à mettre en péril toute une famille pour une négresse alliée de satan. Dieu est grand.

Zia Haider Rahman ‘In The Light of What We Know’

Before 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed. Not just noticed but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? img_1515Was that the incidental effect of no longer being a piece with the background, of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation.

It’s 2008 and there’s a knock on the door of the narrators home in south Kensington he answers to an unkempt skinny brown skinned man who he doesn’t initially recognise, but is his best friend who had dropped off of the radar ten years earlier. Here is a story told slowly over time in a series of one on one discussions in the narrators home by Zafar to his friend. Both are first generation arrivals from South East Asia, but with very different backgrounds thet earlier, as friends, the narrator had never really explored. He came from a rich Pakistani family with powerful connections and links to the military which of course Zafar knew, we then learn together that Zafar’s family came from Bangladesh, once East Pakistan and we are told of the difficulties between the two regions from the outset:

Even the name of the new nation, the most loyal expression of a people’s language, it’s label, was an act of exclusion and subordination. The préfabrication of one Choudhary Rahmat Ali: P, Punjab. A, Afghania, K Kashmir, and the -stan, the annexe of land, land of the PAK, with an anaptyxic epenthetic i, don’t you know, just to root the acronym in the land, all of which made a neat little pun, Land of the Pure, the Muslims, while it brought together its constituent peoples. Only it didn’t. Where were the Bengalis? Where was the B? 1000 miles of India between them. Surely not left out merely because the pun wouldn’t work but never conceived as a piece of the country, a part of the main. Next in 1948, the West made Urdu the sole official language of the Eastern part..

The story weaves backwards and forwards in time according to the seemingly random choice of Zafar, they had both studied in the USA together, mathematics before branching out differently, the narrator in at the very start of the sub-prime packaging (yes 2008 was an uncomfortable time for him) and Zafar had been sucked into the void that was Afghanistan. But how and why, where is the story taking us? We learn that Zafar had always been able to defend himself if necessary from violence and he tells uf of the changes he perceived in peoples attitude to him in Ney York after 9/11 as illustrated in the opening quote.

Zafar is a tortured personality, fistly we learn that his family, the people that brought him up were not his parents, back to Bangladesh:

In March of 1971, the Bengal state -at that time officially East Pakistan – declared its independence as Bangladesh. West Pakistan imported troops to put down the rebellion. Until India’s armed intervention in December 1971, Pakistani troops waged war against the Bengalis. Estimates place the death toll at 3 million, the number of women raped at over 200,000 and their resultant pregnancies at 25,000
-Dorothy Q. Thomas and Regan E. Ralph,’Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity’.

Slowly throughout the book we learn of his relationship with the aristocratic Hampton-Wyvern family, of the difference of class, Penelope the mother and Emily the daughter, of his time with Emily not quite working out and his eventually spending time in care after  suffering a break-down with occasional visits by Emily but in spite of being informed by Emily, the narrator never visited him. Interspersed with this we learn of his time in Afghanistan working for AfDARI, the Afghan Development, Aid and Reconstruction Institute, pulled in because of his education and background:

My stated business, at least as documented, was to act as adviser to a department of the new Afghani administration. Advisers were numberless in Kabul, like stray dogs in Mumbai;even the advisers had advisers, and none of them were less than ‘special advisers’ or ‘senior-advisers’.

But where is all of this hugely sweeping story taking us? well of course after taking in large pans of world history the point we are circling is much more personal, much closer to home, the story is designed to bring the two men closer:

I’m asking questions and you’re uncomfortable. Relax. I can stop, said Zafar.
Of course he could stop and I could have stopped him…. But I said nothing. It’s a difficult thing to admit, but Zafar’s potential for cruelty has always pulled me in, binding me to him. Here he was, staying at my home, eating my food, availing himself of my hospitality. I wanted to tell him that I was the successful one here. But the ungenerous thought couldn’t withstand the reality: My marriage was a disaster; my home, this retreat, was foreign soil , made bearable only by his arrival..

Closer, which they need to become in order to discuss the heart of the matter and the Hampton-Wyverns.

A story crammed full of information and written in a very precise style, a worthwhile read.

First Published in English as “In the Light of What We Know” in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

S. J. Watson ‘Before I Go To Sleep’

THE BEDROOM IS strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home….It is then that I hear a juddering intake of breath behind me and realize I am not alone. I turn around. I see an expanse of skin and dark hair, flecked with white. A man. He has his left arm outside the covers and there is a gold band on the third finger of the hand. I suppress a groan. So this one is not only old and gray, I think, but also married. Not only have I screwed a married man, but I have done so in what I am guessing is his home, in the bed he must usually share with his wife. I lie back to gather myself. I ought to be ashamed.

In this, Watson’s first published book, ‘Before I go to sleep’ a thriller, the story begins as Christine wakes, reasonably supposing she has partied too hard and discovers the man she is in bed with, seethe opening quote. But then as she sneaks into the bathroom the shock is total when she looks into the mirror and sees a lady in her fifties looking back at her and the begins to scream. Christine is suffering from a rare form of memory loss where whenever she sleeps her memory of the day she has lived is wiped clean and this has been going on for twenty years!

So much for the base on which the story is then built, this idea was already investigated by Jonathan Nolan’s Memento Mori, where Earl uses notes and tattoos to keep track on ideas. Here Christine is broken out of her Groundhog Day, waking each day with no memory of events and discovering the same things each day with her husband calming her and explaining the situation to her before leaving for work, when she is contacted by a doctor who persuades her to keep a private diary and who phones her every day to tell her where to look as she the discovers from her accumulated writing the inconsistencies in the information she is given by her husband.

Can a person with no memory exist, have an identity, a question Watson puts forward through Christine’s questions to herself:

There, in the bathroom, I thought of my old age. I tried to imagine what it will be like. Will I still wake up, in my seventies or eighties, thinking myself to be at the beginning of my life? Will I wake with no idea that my bones are old, my joints stiff and heavy? I cannot imagine how I will cope when I discover that my life is behind me, has already happened, and I have nothing to show for it. No treasure house of recollection, no wealth of experience, no accumulated wisdom to pass on. What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories? How will I feel when I look in a mirror and see the reflection of my grandmother? I do not know, but I cannot allow myself to think of that now.

As for the thriller, well it can only work if things are not what they seem, and of course they are not, what more unreliable narrator than one with no memory. As the story progresses though, as Christine strings together day after day in her diary, is her memory beginning to come back or is she embroidering adding layer after layer of almost truths? Is there hope? What do you imagine?

First Published in English as “Before I Go To Sleep” in 2011 by Harper