Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan is published tomorrow (11th January), in hardcover and for kindle, by Simon and Schuster – paperback readers must wait until August. You really could be forgiven for thinking that it’s been out for some time, as I’ve rarely seen so many advance reviews – and although I’ve tried to avoid them, so that I could make up my own mind, it’s been impossible not to get the strong message that this book is something very special indeed. My thanks to the publisher and netgalley for my reading e-copy.
A high-profile marriage thrust into the spotlight. A wife, determined to keep her family safe, must face a prosecutor who believes justice has been a long time coming. A scandal that will rock Westminster. And the women caught at the heart of it.
Anatomy of a Scandal centres on a high-profile marriage that begins to unravel when the husband is accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is sure her husband, James, is innocent and desperately hopes to protect her precious family from the lies which might ruin them. Kate is the barrister who will prosecute the case – she is equally certain that James is guilty and determined he will pay for his crimes.
High expectations can, just sometimes, bring disappointment – but my goodness, most definitely not with this one. It takes a very special book to make you live entirely within it for the days that you are reading – when the situations and characters become totally real to you, when you turn on the TV news expecting the day’s events to be one of the night’s opening features. The impeccable research – the court processes and procedures, life in the palace of Westminster, the privileged lifestyle of rich kids at Oxford in the story’s earlier timeframe – is used quite perfectly, breathing life into every scene. The characters are real, people you recognise – the politician with his supreme self confidence and ready smile (and the host of other expressions to fit the circumstances), the loyal wife at his side (or maybe slightly in his wake), the manipulators of people that surround him. James dazzles at his every appearance – magnetic in the way he draws your eye, but also repulsive in so many other ways.
But it’s the women in this story that fascinated me the most. The barrister, Kate, is a wonderful creation – you share her public and private moments, and really feel for her as she bends her every effort to bringing down a man she knows in her heart to be guilty. And James’ wife Sophie – her journey is compelling as she moves on from the initial betrayal to absolute belief in her husband’s innocence, then through agonies of questions and doubt, all in the public eye. Lesser female characters are superbly drawn too – James’ accuser Olivia (particularly in the witness box), her loyal friend who urged her to initiate proceedings and is just magnificent in her court appearance, Kate’s friend and her moral dilemma, even the opposing counsel.
I loved the book’s construction – the interspersing of the back story might, at times, drag you reluctantly away from unfolding scene in the court room, but every scene is integral to the plot, and the slow reveal (with its shocks and surprises) is just magnificently handled. The book’s moral issues – and the personal issues that underlie them – are very current, and as you read you find yourself constantly questioning the rights and wrongs, and debating internally exactly how you might act in similar circumstances. And I haven’t mentioned the writing itself, have I? The contemporary story is illuminated by its small details – the facial expressions, the tapping of a pen, the small exchanges, the careful use of words – and the whole thing makes absolutely compelling reading, simply perfect.
I’ve enjoyed Sarah Vaughan’s writing before – but this one moves her into a totally different super league. It might be barely January, but this will – without a shadow of doubt – be one of my books of the year.
About the author
Sarah Vaughan read English at Oxford and went on to be a journalist. After training with the Press Association, she worked for The Guardian for 11 years as a news reporter, health correspondent and political correspondent before leaving to freelance. She started writing fiction the week she turned forty. Anatomy of a Scandal is her third novel and will be published in January 2018 by S&S in the UK, US and Canada, plus other commonwealth countries. It will also be translated into 16 languages. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two young children and is currently writing her fourth novel.