Few first novels are as successful as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, which married a startling and unusual premise to a tightly controlled and claustrophobic thriller. Its only drawback was that it was a hard act to follow.
Novelists tend to dump all their brilliant ideas into their first book, and the white heat of originality compensates to some extent for any want of craft. Second novels lack both advantages, and have the additional problem that readers come to them laden with expectations.
Like its predecessor, Second Life is a slice of domestic noir with a woman narrator. It is set mainly in affluent corners of London, with occasional trips to Paris. Its central character, Julia, is an attractive 37-year-old photographer with a teenage son and a doting neurosurgeon husband.
Beneath this pampered surface, however, lie deep fissures. Julia is a recovering alcoholic and drug-addict, who carries around with her more than her fair share of guilt. As a young woman she spent time in a Berlin squat, where her lover, Marcus, killed himself with an overdose of heroin. Her son, Connor, is not in fact her own but the child of her younger sister Kate by an unknown father.
Julia’s comfortable existence disintegrates when Kate, now living in Paris, is murdered by an unknown assailant. In her quest to discover what happened, Julia goes to Paris and stays with Anna, Kate’s friend and flatmate, from whom she learns that Kate was dabbling in cybersex. She may have met a partner in the flesh, as it were; perhaps he murdered her.
Julia’s attempts to trace one of Kate’s lovers lead her to Lukas, a mysterious hunk who rapidly sweeps her off her feet and manipulates her into increasingly exploitative sex. Julia soon becomes addicted to this as well.
Meanwhile, her husband, Hugh, is distracted by a malpractice suit at work. Connor has withdrawn into adolescent gloom and is falling in love with Evie, a mysterious young woman he encounters only on Facebook. (In general, the mechanics of the plot draw heavily on Julia’s inability to understand how iPhone apps and social networks can infiltrate our lives, sometimes without our knowledge. As a title, ‘Second Life’ has several meanings.)
Is Lukas after Julia’s money? Did he kill Kate, despite apparently having been in Australia at the time of her murder? Who is Evie? How can Julia prevent Lukas destroying herself and her family?
Second Life is both claustrophobic and compelling. It’s carefully written and constructed. In Watson’s first novel, however, the reader’s sympathy was firmly with the narrator. In the second, that sympathy is rapidly diluted — or rather it blends with less appealing elements. Julia emerges as needy, self-obsessed and privileged, Lukas as a violent, controlling man with psychopathic tendencies. It’s not easy to understand her willingness to allow him to flatter, cajole and bully her into an increasingly damaging (emotionally and physically) relationship with him. Nor, when all is revealed at the end, is there anything very surprising. The twists are not difficult to foretell.
But these caveats shouldn’t keep you away from the novel. It is much more than 50 shades of sexual obsession, with attendant corpses. Watson writes very powerfully about his protagonist’s plight. He is remarkably good on the manipulation of the vulnerable. He also has the admirable ability to focus his — and our — attention on a handful of characters and to wring every drop of emotion out of their situation. I look forward to number three.
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