Very ambitious time-slip novel, in which a woman is transported into a future version of her life and self. In her second time around most things are the same – family, locations, the wider world – though her personal life has altered: her appearance, her relationships with her family, her career. So this is science fiction in concept, but the novelist primarily concentrates the narrative on two things: Elisa’s psychology and how she deals with the changes after being transformed into a parallel self in a parallel existence (a self that made different choices in a parallel past); and the relationships this emotionally fragile and unstable woman has with her “new” family and those she encounters. Lovers and friends she once knew are now strangers she has never encountered before in her new history (which has to be explained to her by her husband, who is also subtly different to how she remembered him). And places of work she once knew intimately have never known her presence. I found that totally absorbing and frightening – your past is no longer your past, your friends are strangers, your family still exists but your relationships are different because your experiences with them have been different in your parallel life that you now inhabit. If you confess to what you think has happened, people will think you are mad. Perhaps you are and have imagined something outlandish that seems like reality to you.
Often novels based on such a fantastical concept struggle when the reader is distracted by pulling threads from the concept, ie with time travel. I’ll admit I am one of the few who didn’t rate Before I Go To Sleep; I just didn’t buy the principal the story was founded on. But Lennon really thought his ideas through and creates, to me, an authentic experience, no matter how outlandish the central idea (the fact that it isn’t outlandish as you read is another testament to the subtlety of his craft and approach). And that is an indication of really intelligent and insightful writing.
My edition has an after word by the author in which he says that the novel was his reaction to how America changed in subtle but disorienting ways the day after 9/11. It’s also an idea that he considered for ten years until he was ready to write the book. In addition he says it’s about parenting and how you change as a person, whilst remaining partially powerless over keeping your offspring on the right path. Not an approach I’ve come across often.
I found Elisa almost unbearably high maintenance at times, which says more about what experience of similar people I brought to the reading experience than the character. But the psychological insights are superb, as are the characters (there’s a seemingly sociopathic son reminiscent of Kevin from ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ in both worlds, who is rendered so well), and I always prefer an authentic character who isn’t particularly likeable to a “hero”. I tend to find North American writers handle this depth of psychological insight so well in their literary tradition. What I like about Shriver, Cheever, Bellow, Malamud, McCarthy, Ford, Salinger etc in how they explore psychology and consciousness, I also admire about Lennon’s fiction. No one is good, or necessarily all bad, they’re all “assholes” to each other at one time or another, they’re confused and battling with their own ghosts – they’re mixed, they’re real.
The ending is superb, and I found it chilling and unconventional – a bit Nigel Kneale, which is no bad thing. It also features the best rendering of a genre convention I have read, and I have been to a few. So I highly recommend the novel, and for me, it’s the kind of science fiction I like to read – how a character responds to a major event, rather than space operas in which adventures occur amidst advanced physics and technology. The fact that it might not even be science fiction but the story of a woman unhinged by a monumental series of breakdowns, I also liked. My jury was in and out on occasion, but I ultimately decided that she did “dimension-slip”.