Book review: Second Life

SJ Watson
Doubleday, €14.50
AS THE title suggests, this is a psychological thriller based on a woman’s shadow life.

Julia Plummer, who loves her husband, is the last person you’d imagine going online to meet men.

But when her younger sister, Kate, is brutally murdered in Paris, and Julia discovers the password she had been using for online encounters, she decides to delve for incriminating clues the police may have missed.

She is contacted by Lukas, who seems as reserved as her, and their chats are initially ‘safe’ and tame. Eventually, after deciding he couldn’t have killed Kate because Facebook provides a failsafe alibi, she decides to meet him, in case he had also spoken to Kate and can help her. And then things become complicated.

To add another layer to the plot, Julia is battling not only with her grief, but also guilt. Her sister Kate was the biological mother of her son, Connor, whom she adopted because Kate was unstable and only 16 when she had him. Kate had started asking for him back, and Julia didn’t want to let him go. Part of her guilt is to do with her feeling of relief that this is no longer an issue.

We learn that Julia’s husband, Hugh, ‘saved’ her at a critical time in her youth, when she had just escaped from a lifestyle of parties and heroin in Berlin with her boyfriend Marcus. This part of her life haunts her, and there are flashbacks throughout the book.

Julia is conscious of the potential damage of an affair to her family. Nevertheless, she continues her online liaison with Lukas, pushing away her oldest friend and bonding instead with her new friend, Anna, who was close to her sister in Paris.

She becomes so obsessed with this secret excitement, that she is hardly aware of what her son Connor is going through. Things come to a head when he rebels and disappears to Paris.

While the language is plain and there are minimal descriptions of setting or external characterisation, this is largely a plot-driven story. Unfortunately there’s not much ‘drive’ until the last third of the book.

What’s more interesting is Julia’s internal dialogue with herself, although her self-deceptions and rationalisations are sometimes hard to buy, given that she’s apparently an intelligent woman.

The tension builds slowly as the reader learns more about Lukas. A sexy man ten years younger than Julia, Lukas shares characteristics with the main protagonist in Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver.

He is calculating and charming, with a cold, dangerous streak, brilliantly capable of convincing women that he is in love.

For fans of Fifty Shades, you won’t get what you’re looking for here. SJ Watson, perhaps because he is male, sidesteps the issue of female fantasies beyond a reference to the stranger ‘who won’t take no for an answer’ fantasy.

At least, for those who are squeamish about sex scenes, there’s a relieving lack of bodily fluids. This side of the story is subtly conveyed, and wouldn’t offend your granny.

The more chilling aspect of the book is when manipulation is combined with a woman’s blind spot.

Some of the developments are easily anticipated, although there are a couple of red herrings. But the overall impression is that the author was trying too hard to avoid a predictable ending.

The final dénouement reveals surprises but is unconvincing. And I had to groan at the last line! Nevertheless, an effortless bedtime read and, no doubt, fans of SJ Watson’s successful first novel, Before I go to Sleep will ignore reviews and buy it anyway.


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