I think SJ Watson’s new novel “Second Life” has one of the best teaser blurbs I’ve read in a long time:
“She loves her husband. She's obsessed by a stranger. She's a devoted mother. She's prepared to lose everything. She knows what she's doing. She's out of control. She's innocent. She's guilty as sin. She's living two lives. She might lose both.”
What a succinct and enticing way to draw a reader in!
The tone is apt because this psychological-thriller is written in a similar fast-paced style narrated from the point of view of emotionally-torn Julia Plummer, a married photographer living with her husband Hugh and son Connor in London. Although they have a relatively cosy and happy life, it’s been rattled recently by Julia’s younger sister Kate who asks for custody of Connor. The teenage boy is really Kate’s son, but Julia and Hugh have cared for him since he was a baby because of Kate’s instability. In the novel’s opening we learn that Kate was murdered in Paris under mysterious circumstances. Julia used to have her own wild side before settling down. Partly as a way of dealing with her grief, she becomes entangled in an online romance which spills over into real life. Her stable life is threatened by the new secret second life she begins to lead while also searching for answers about her sister’s death.
Central to the story is the notion of parallel lives that people lead. Early in her adult life Julia spent some untamed years in Berlin where she had an intense affair with a man named Marcus and established a reputation as an artistic photographer. Her lifestyle spun out of control with tragic results, but finding Hugh and establishing a stable home life saved her. However, she still desires the undomesticated aspects of this earlier time which are realized within her affair. Sex isn’t usually only motivated by desire; factored into Julia’s experimentation are her insecurities, yearning to freely express herself or, as she admits at one point, “It’s the simple thrill of being wanted.” As is common in modern life, cybersex is a way for people to test out repressed aspects of their sexuality. It’s a common paranoid fear that you may end up chatting up online and then meeting in real life someone who turns out to be a psycho. While this rarely happens in reality, this novel is a thriller so it’s not possible for Julia to meet a decent man looking for fun or for her unleashed desires to stay in neat little compartments. Occasionally her lover becomes a bit too much of a comedy villain during the story. But what drives the narrative and makes it a compelling read are the true motivations and mounting mystery about the real identity of this charming, seductive rogue who enters her life.
We all operate on different levels of self-delusion in order to justify our actions and not be weighed down with guilt. This ranges from large lies like Julia’s initiating an affair in order to investigate clues to smaller lies like breaking her diet to eat chips because she thinks she deserves it. Throughout Julia’s narrative the reader learns about the different ways she’s deceiving herself so that while facts continuously come to light we question the reliability of what she’s telling us. Lies abound in this story and it adds a compelling complexity when the reader questions not only the characters she meets but the narrator herself.
This raises larger issues about the distinction between identity and self-presentation. At one point she observes that “we’re wearing masks, all of us, all the time. We’re presenting a face, a version of ourselves, to the world, to each other. We show a different face depending on who we’re with and what they expect of us. Even when we’re alone it’s just another mask, the version of ourselves we’d prefer to be.” This is another way of putting William James’ theory that people have a different self for every social situation that they participate in, but it adds a level of complexity about the way individuals choose to see a more idealized self when alone. As the different lives Julia leads between her husband and her lover become increasingly complicated, she herself is uncertain who she really is when alone.
A really poignant aspect of this novel is its depiction of Julia’s struggle with alcoholism. During her time in Berlin she developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs. Although she’s been sober for many years it’s still a struggle, especially in moments of stress. What Watson captures so well is the psychological steps the addict goes through when facing temptation. Rather than impulsively following the desire to drink when it comes up, Julia has learned to pause and think through the emotions which are making her want alcohol. By being conscious of this she can deal with these emotions in a way other than drinking. She’s also learned techniques for dealing with social situations that include drinking where she doesn’t need to divulge the nature of her illness. This representation of someone’s way of dealing daily with alcoholism felt very true to life and meaningful.
“Second Life” makes a gripping read in the skilled way it captures the moment to moment logic of its sympathetic narrator and drops well-timed suggestive hints which prompt the reader to experience pleasurable “ah-ha” moments of understanding. It also presents a complex understanding of sexuality when the distinction between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. While I was able to guess a couple of the twists along the way, it succeeds as a thriller by delivering a surprising ending which I didn’t see coming.