Art Kavanagh

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Book review: S J Watson, Second Life

Second LifeSecond Life by S.J. Watson

In the film, Changing Lanes (2002), Samuel L Jackson plays an alcoholic whose ex-wife tells him that he's addicted to chaos as much as to booze. Julia, the protagonist of S J Watson's second novel, is a dry alcoholic and former heroin user whose primary addiction seems to be to danger. She is married to a surgeon and they have adopted the now-teenage son of her younger sister, about whom Julia feels guilty and responsible.

When the sister, Kate, is battered to death in a Paris alleyway, Julia is drawn to try to find out more about her life and death. This leads her to Lukas, a member of the same online hookup site that Kate had used, Encounterz. Julia persuades herself that Lukas may have met Kate and may know something about her death, though it quickly becomes clear that he could not have been directly responsible as he was verifiably away on holiday at the time of the murder.

Lukas and Julia meet and soon discover that they have been deceiving each other about their identities and where they live. This doesn't deter them from starting an affair, nor is Julia put off by Lukas's evident taste for violence and domination. That's not to say that Julia is submissive, but her attraction to risk is heightened by her powerful sense of guilt, which may mean that she feels she ought to be punished.

The search for information about Kate's murder fades into the background, as it becomes clear that Lukas is playing some unfathomable game of manipulation. Another factor which has some bearing on Julia's state of mind is the time she spent in Berlin as a 19-year-old with Marcus, the subject of a highly-regarded photograph she took at the time (she now takes family portraits).

For perhaps too long, these narrative strands seem to exist in isolation from each other, without much connection. I found the book less than compelling until I was past the half-way point, I had doubts about the direction in which Watson seemed to be taking his plot and I wasn't at all sure I was going to finish the book. I was wondering if I could give it fewer stars than the three I gave to Before I Go to Sleep. It's worth persevering with. In the end, Watson brings his disparate plot strands together with considerable narrative skill. With a vengeance, you might say.

Originally posted on Goodreads, August 2016