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Lumpen midsection lets down racy thriller

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Second Life

Second Life

Second Life

Grumbling about the dramatic decline in the median wage of writers these days, Will Self theorised that all of the British novelists who make a comfortable living from their craft could now be housed in a small single bedroom.

For the likes of SJ Watson, such things may not yet present a discernible hurdle. The English author turned heads and wallets in 2011 with his debut Before I Go To Sleep, which sold four million copies and was quickly optioned for a lavish film adaptation produced by Ridley Scott and starring screen heavyweights such as Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. But if Watson hit considerable paydirt on that first outing, he would be wise to bank the cash because this follow-up, on the face of it, looks unlikely to yield similar success.

The theme of concealed thoughts is again poured into the thriller mould by Watson. Before I Go To Sleep looked at amnesia and buried memories. Second Life concerns itself with lies and cognitive dissonance and the way we justify wrongdoing to ourselves when compromised by addiction.

Fertile land for some screw-turning danger, you imagine. Unfortunately, Watson's is the realm of the shlocky 1980s B-movie, where an extra-marital cybersex affair starts as a lurid injection of vitality into a dull life and ends as a tiresome chase around the narrative kitchen table.

Julia is married to a successful surgeon, runs a photo studio and is a surrogate parent to her tearaway sister's moody teenage son. When said sister turns up dead in a Paris alleyway, Julia decides to take it upon herself to look into the online predilections of her estranged sister to see if anything escaped the police investigators. In the course of this, she comes across a seductive stranger called Lukas with whom she embarks on an affair.

Predictably enough, Lukas is bad news, and despite increasing signs of this, Julia's rejigged libido overwhelms her conscience, her sense of responsibility and her love for her adopted son. We know this because the fearful rattles and ponderings of her addled brain are smeared like Polyfilla into every corner of the plot. How she loves her doting husband and adopted son, she thinks while being led to a toilet cubicle by the dark and mysterious Lukas. And all this four years after the publication of 50 Shades of Grey.

Thus, Julia is a less than appealing protagonist, a bare-faced liar who imposes strict moral codes on those around her.

She makes adequate use of her estranged sister's death to excuse her infidelity but gives short shrift to long-suffering husband Hugh when he doesn't keep her precisely up to date on progress with the Paris investigations. We can't get behind her.

It would be churlish, though, to ignore what Watson executes effectively in Second Life. He bookends the tale effectively, beginning with expertly measured intrigues as the ingredients of Julia's psychology and backstory are drip-fed to us - she doesn't drink for some reason and pines for an early relationship in a Berlin squat from her younger days. This takes timing and restraint.

The denouement, meanwhile, is the opposite end of that spectrum, a writhing thing, gnarled with incredulous (albeit predictable) plot twists and an overheated pace. It works but only just.

The problem is the space in between, a long and lumpen midsection that reads like a script from some late-night straight-to-cable TV erotic thriller. A world away, then, from Kidman and Firth, and an underwhelming step in Watson's trajectory.

Sunday Indo Living