“Anatomy of a Scandal” Sarah Vaughan (Simon and Schuster) – book review

Anatomy of a ScandalThree stories are interwoven when a rape case lands in court. James, the defendant in a junior minister confident he’ll be found not guilty and will be able to return to government once the dust settles. An old Etonian who studied at Oxford alongside the Prime Minister, James’s life has been one of privilege and entitlement. He met his wife Sophie at Oxford. Her purpose there was to bag a husband to finance the comfortable lifestyle she aspired too. It was James’s idea she give up work after their second child was born, but she did so willingly. Now she has to face up to some uncomfortable truths about her marriage. It was easy for her to convince herself she had a special place in James’s heart as the mother of his children and turn a blind eye to his infidelities. But, in court, she has to endure hearing the evidence and understanding the truth she, until now, had never been ready to admit. Kate, the barrister for the prosecution, isn’t just prosecuting another rape case. There’s a personal angle to this one that points to secrets in her history.

The story is chiefly told through the viewpoints of Kate and Sophie, with occasional chapters in James’s viewpoint. His victim, as happens in rape cases, plays a secondary role as witness, someone who tells her story in front of the jury. She is humiliated and shamed by the defence who take every opportunity to remind her that she had willingly entered an affair with a married man and suggest she did consent on the occasion she now describes as rape. Kate knows her witness is telling the truth. Sophie watches her husband turn politician when it’s his turn to be witness. She learns that he sees the truth as interpretable and his belief that his version of the truth is more important that anyone else’s. The verdict comes around two-thirds of the way through the novel, with the final third focusing on repercussions and a life-defining event at Oxford twenty-three years before the trial. A secret that could end the careers of both James and his best friend the Prime Minister.

James’s saving grace is his relationship with his children. His lack of self-examination comes from a background where problems were brushed aside or someone was paid to make them go away. His powerful connections cause Sophie to feel trapped. She has no career and is dependent on James and can’t risk upsetting James’s plans to be back in government. She can’t just reveal the Oxford secret, not because of the impact on her security, but because James’s connections mean she can just be swept aside.

The case forces Kate to confront her demons too. She was a northern, working class girl who managed to get into Oxford but left after the first year, switching to Liverpool University where she focused on becoming a barrister. She nearly passed on this case. What stopped her was wanting to see justice done. The aftermath reaches out beyond Sophie and Kate. James’s mother questions the way she raised her son. Friendships forged at Oxford are put under the microscope and picked apart. Only those based on truth and respect can remain intact.

“Anatomy of a Scandal” is pacey but not so quick that readers don’t have time to absorb the drama or get to know the characters. Kate, Sophie and supporting characters are fully-rounded and credible. Readers want justice for Kate but also for Sophie not to be dragged down with her husband. There are moments where readers can empathise with James too. His privilege enables him but also gives him a blind spot, a weakness that leaves him vulnerable but gives him an ability to recognise his power and change. Sarah Vaughan asks questions, all too relevant in the #MeToo climate, but doesn’t preach. She shows awareness of capturing nuance, relating identifiable scenarios and lets characters speak for themselves as they demonstrate the effects of rape ripple out beyond the perpetrator and victim. “Anatomy of a Scandal” is a gripping court room drama with depth and a compulsion which makes the characters live on.

More details of “Anatomy of a Scandal” at Simon and Schuster’s website.

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