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The ShortRead: S J Watson


The ShortRead of 19 February

Second Life

Second Life

Author: S J Watson

What's the story: The tricky second work. S J Watson hit the top of just about every major book list with his debut novel Before I Go to Sleep, an edgy thriller that far outshone its 2014 film adaptation. In the twisted world of Second Life it's the girl who's gone missing, not her memory.

Julia Plummer is the enviable everywoman; married to a loving husband, mother of a content son. The cracks begin to emerge in her otherwise perfect world when news arrives from Paris that Julia's sister Kate has been found dead, the result of an assumed botched mugging. As she starts her own search for the killer, Julia begins unpicking the sordid second life of her sister. 

A gripping, contemporary thriller, this is the sort of thing you'll plough through in a hurried weekend of page turning. 

Release date: Out now


I climb the stairs but the door is closed. I hesitate outside it. Now I’m here, I don’t want to go in. I want to turn round, go home. Try again later.

But this is my last chance. The exhibition has been on for weeks and closes tomorrow. It’s now or never.

I close my eyes and breathe as deeply as I can. I concentrate on filling my lungs, I straighten my shoulders, I feel the tension in my body evaporate as I breathe out. I tell myself there’s nothing to be worried about, I come here regularly – to meet friends for lunch, to catch the latest exhibitions, to attend lectures. This time is no different. Nothing here can hurt me. It’s not a trap.

Finally I feel ready. I push open the door and go in.

The place looks exactly as it always does – off-white walls, a polished wooden floor, spots in the ceiling that hang off tracks – and though it’s early there are already a few people wandering around. I watch for a minute as they pause in front of the pictures, some standing further back to get a better view, others nodding at a companion’s murmured comment or examining the printed sheet they’ve picked up downstairs. The atmosphere is one of hushed reverence, of calm contemplation. These people will look at the photographs. They will like them, or not, then they will go back outside, back to their lives, and in all likelihood they will forget them.

At first I allow myself only a glance at the walls. There are a dozen or so large photos hung at intervals, plus a few smaller ones between them. I tell myself I could wander around, pretend to be interested in them all, but today there’s only one photograph I’ve come to see.

It takes me a moment to find it. It’s hung on the far wall, at the back of the gallery, not quite in the centre. It’s next to a couple of other shots – a full-length colour portrait of a young girl in a torn dress, a close-up of a woman with kohlrimmed eyes smoking a cigarette. Even from this distance it looks impressive. It’s in colour, though it was taken in natural light and its palette is mostly blues and greys, and blown up to this size it’s imposing. The exhibition is called ‘Partied Out’, and even though I don’t look at it properly until I’m just a few feet away I can see why this picture is in such a prominent position.

I haven’t looked at it in over a decade. Not properly. I’ve seen it, yes – even though it wasn’t a particularly well-used photograph back then it had been featured in a couple of magazines and even a book – but I haven’t looked at it in all this time. Not close up.

I approach it obliquely, and examine the label first. ‘Julia Plummer’, it says. ‘Marcus in the Mirror, 1997, Cibachrome print’. There’s nothing else, no biographical information, and I’m glad. I allow myself to look up at the picture.

It’s of a man; he looks about twenty. He’s naked, shot from the waist up, looking at his reflection. The image in front of him is in focus, but he isn’t, and his face is thin. His eyes are narrowed and his mouth hangs slightly open, as if he’s about to speak, or sigh. There’s something melancholy in the photograph, but what you can’t see is that up until the moment before it was taken the guy in it – Marcus – had been laughing. He’d spent the afternoon in bed with his girlfriend, someone he was in love with as much as she was with him. They’d been reading to each other – Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, or maybe Gatsby, which she’d read and he hadn’t – and eating ice cream from the tub. They were warm, they were happy, they were safe. A radio was playing rhythm and blues in their bedroom across the hall, and in the shot his mouth is open because his girlfriend, the woman taking the shot, was humming along and he was about to join in.

Originally the picture had been different. The girlfriend was in the frame, reflected in the mirror just over the man’s shoulder, her camera raised to her eye. She was naked, blurred out of focus. It was a portrait of the two of them, back when photographs taken in mirrors were still unusual.

I’d liked the shot like that. Preferred it, almost. But at some point – I don’t remember when, exactly, but certainly before I first exhibited it – I changed my mind. I decided it looked better without me in it. I took myself out of the picture.

I regret it now. It was dishonest of me, the first time I used my art to lie, and I want to tell Marcus I’m sorry. For everything. I’m sorry for following him to Berlin, and for leaving him there, alone in that photograph, and for not being the person he thought I was.

Even after all this time, I’m still sorry.



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