Books, Fiction, Reviews

Book review: Second Life by S.J Watson

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S.J Watson’s first novel Before I Go to Sleep announced the arrival of a strong, new voice in psychological thriller writing, so his second novel, released this week, is much anticipated.

Like his first novel, this new book is narrated by a woman desperately trying to fill the gaps in the her life story. Second Life sees its protagonist Julia take increasing risks in her bid to discover who killed her troubled younger sister found murdered in Paris.

While the bestselling Before I Go to Sleep was centred around a memory loss that made for constant tension and lent a genuine urgency to the story, Second Life struggles to establish momentum and its claim to the thriller moniker until the final third of the story.

Once it gets there  it becomes a compelling unravelling of lies and lives triangulated between Julia, her sister’s former room mate in Paris and a man she has met online. But until then, it is mostly a story of a naive, middle-class housewife living in England and it feels at least 10 years past its due date.

It is a book in which the protagonist is married to a surgeon (there must be more popular fiction protagonists married to surgeons than actual surgeons in the United Kingdom by now), people find online dating and hookups taboo, and in which young women still have Filofaxes.

None of these details would matter if the story established its pace earlier. Instead, the first half of the book wobbles as it attempts to delve into the disorientation of grief, addiction and the challenges of adoption — we learn early that Julia and her husband Hugh have raised Julia’s sister’s child as their own.

Watson’s punchy prose style gives the book a clear voice and sense that something is about to happen, soon. He is also adept at capturing how swiftly and easily a life can veer off course through the simplest of decisions, a trait that makes his lead character, while a bit empty-headed, at least a sympathetic one.

“I don’t answer; my choice of words had been uncalculated, my mistake Freudian,” Watson writes in Julia’s voice about a key conversation. “But it’s made, and now a single word is all it would take. I could say yes, stand up and walk away.”

There is a lot to enjoy in Second Life. When Watson hits his stride, the ending of the book becomes compulsively readable. While it occasionally tends to melodrama, the ending’s high stakes and build up of nicely woven telling details make it a rewarding book tif the reader trusts its author enough to make it through the first two thirds.

Second Life is published by Text

You can buy it here 

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