Anatomy of a Scandal

Written by Sarah Vaughan

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.


Anatomy of a Scandal
Simon & Schuster
RRP: £12.99
Released: January 11 2018
HBK

December 2016: the scrag-end of the year before the hysteria of Christmas, and a barrister has just lost a case. Kate specialises in sex crimes and prefers to prosecute so when a violently abusive oaf gets away with rape she is deeply depressed.  Then her clerk enters at a crucial moment with something "meaty, high-profile": a case to challenge her flagging spirit.

Basically the situation presented is almost commonplace. James is married to Sophie, he has an affair with Olivia, breaks it off, then Olivia cries rape. The difference between this and other extra-marital shenanigans is that James is a junior minister of the Crown, Olivia was his aide, and the affair was conducted in the Palace of Westminster, the alleged climax being the rape of Olivia in a House of Commons lift. Dignity, honour, civic responsibility - the very fabric of government is threatened by those brief moments that send the Media into a feeding frenzy.

Kate accepts the case for the prosecution. There are five characters in this story, debatably six, and we revert to their youth: to 1992 when the girls are freshers at Oxford, James is a gifted and gilded athlete, close friend of Tom (who will become a prime minister) and the world is everyone's oyster. For the innocent the delights of freedom and learning smother sexual grit. Romance, medieval and modern, is the order of the day among the dreaming spires.

Among the new students Holly is plain and plump, a clever working class girl befriended by Sophie: privileged, pretty, whose aims are a successful husband, a nice house and a second class degree. She sets her sights on James while Holly, who doesn't have aims but glories in the present and new perspectives, Holly has such a horrifying experience in her first year that she drops out of Oxford and goes home. Only one person, her closest friend, Alison, knows that she was raped but not the identity of the attacker.

Twenty four years later, James, still as close to Tom (now the PM) as in the days when they trashed restaurants and abused servants in drunken orgies together - James is a junior minister. Sophie is the perfect politician's wife, Alison is a beleaguered but functioning earth mother. Holly is a shade in the past. People live busy lives on the cusp of a volcano. And then Olivia brings her charge.

James is tried at the Old Bailey, Kate the prosecutor. Now women predominate, as they have done throughout. Their stories, their characters, their behaviour, all so intimately dissected that James becomes background, less than human, more the symbol of an institution. There is no plot as such. There was a problem. It wasn't, isn't resolved: a problem that, topical as it has become, has been rescued from ordinariness and even ridicule by Vaughan's clever deconstruction. She has exposed in all its horror and suspense and cruel dilemmas a situation that touches us all.



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