Thanks to NetGalley and to Simon & Schuster UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I got a copy of this book a while back, but I must confess it got buried under tonnes of other books at a time when there were many things on my mind. I kept seeing the book here and there but wasn’t even sure I had a copy any longer. Eventually, as it always happens at the end of the year, I saw a list with recommended reads for the year that ends, with this novel featured prominently, and it was the push I needed to start reading it. I apologise for the delay because it was well worth a read.
The book opens up the 2nd of December 2016, is set in the UK, and is mostly narrated chronologically by a collection of characters. Kate, a QC (the prosecution lawyer in other countries) working in London tells of her experience in court, prosecuting sexual crimes, in the first person. The rest of the characters’ perspectives we get are narrated on the third person, and include those of Ali, a friend Kate met while she was a college student; Sophie, the wife of a junior conservative minister, James, and now stay at home Mum; James himself, the only male account, an upper-class man who always knew his future was golden, and Holly, whose narration starts in 1992, in Oxford. She is a fish out of the water, a young girl from the North, from a modest family, who has managed to get into an Oxford College to study English with a grant, and she suffers a cultural shock at first, although later things seem to look up until… (No spoilers here). It takes a while for all the strands of the story to fit together, although we soon realise there are some coincidences, and some of the people whose narrations appeared disconnected at first, had crossed paths years back.
The author, who as a political journalist has more insight than most people into what goes on in political office and in the government, provides a detailed and totally immersing account of the life of privilege of those who seem destined for “better things” from the very start, and creates very credible and nuanced characters. Vaughan is skilled at describing the atmosphere of the government corridors and of the Old Bailey, and as skilled at shining a light on the characters and their motivations. We have those who feel entitled to everything; characters who keep lying to themselves because they feel they got what they wanted and should now be happy with it, even if it has turned out to be far less ideal than they had always thought; the survivors who reinvented themselves and paid the price of never being completely at ease in their skins, and we have big areas of grey. (I think this book would be ideal for a book club, as there is much to discuss and plenty of controversial topics to keep the conversation going). What is a relationship and what is not? What is love and what is only lust? And central to the whole book, a big question, what is consent? Is it a matter of opinion? Although the definition of the crime seems very clear, when it comes to what people think or “know” in their heads at the time, is anything but.
Although the book is told from different perspectives, it is not confusing to read. Each chapter is headed by the name of the character and the date, and we soon get to know who is who, because their narration and their personalities are very different. That does not mean there aren’t plenty of surprises in the book, and although some we might suspect or expect, the story is well paced, the revelations are drip-fed and make the tension increase, and with the exception of one of the characters (hopefully!), it is not difficult to empathise and share in the thoughts and the moral and ethical doubts of most of the characters. We might think we know better and we would do the right thing but determining what the right thing is can be tough in some cases. And we all compromise sometimes, although there are limits.
I have read some reviews complaining about the amount of detail in the book and they also say that it is slow and nothing much happens. The book is beautifully observed, and the way it explains the ins-and-outs of the trial feels realistic. Perhaps the problem is that we are used to books and movies where everything takes place at lightning speed, and there isn’t a moment to contemplate or observe what is truly happening, beyond the action. This is a thinking book, and there are not big action pieces; that much is true. I have mentioned there are surprises. Secrets are revealed as well, but they surface through digging into people’s memories, or getting them to recognise the truth, not with a gun or a punch. The way we connect with the characters and the layers upon layers of stories and emotions make for a gripping reading experience but not a light one. I have sometimes read books or watched movies that have such a frenzied pace that I always come out at the other end with the feeling that I’ve missed something, some gap or hole in the plot that I would be able to discover if only I were given some time to breathe and think, but that is not the case here. Even the turns of events you might not have expected are fully grounded and make perfect sense, both action-wise and according to the personality of the protagonists. No big flights of fancy here.
This is a book for those who love psychological thrillers, and courtroom dramas that go beyond the standard formula. Although it is a book with strong roots in England, the British Criminal Justice System and the country’s politics, it is so well-written that it will make readers from everywhere think and will inevitably bring to mind cases and well-known characters at a national and international level. Now that I live in Spain, I could not help but keep thinking about the infamous case of “La manada”, where definitions of sexual crimes have become a hot political potato, for very good reason. The debate that the #MeToo has generated should be kept alive, and anything that contributes to that is useful, and if it is a great book, all the better.
I know it is silly, but I was happy to discover that I had finished reading the book on exactly the same date when the book comes to an end, 7th of December 2018. I take that as a sign and look forward to reading many more books by the author.