James Whitehouse, a junior minister in a Conservative British government and secure in his place because of his long-time friendship with the prime minister — since they were schoolboys at Eton together and through their years at Oxford — is clearly a child of privilege. He’s also just been accused of rape by the parliamentary staffer with whom he recently ended an affair.
Assigned to conduct the prosecution is Kate Woodcroft, a brilliant lawyer who’s come from humble origins. Is she going to let the difference in their backgrounds affect her objectivity as she mounts the case? And does she know more than she’s telling about James’s past?
We follow the story largely through the eyes of Kate and of James’s long-suffering wife Sophie, both in the present and a quarter-century ago, when many of the tale’s participants, major and minor, were students at Oxford. The segments set in the 1990s are told in the past tense, the rest — by far the bulk of the book — in the present tense. For a reason I haven’t been able to deduce, Kate’s bits are told in first person, the rest in third. This all makes for a slightly complex narrative structure, but I had no difficulty following it.
What I had more difficulty with was sustaining interest, at least for the earlier portions of the book. Eventually the pace picks up and there’s more to engross us (although there’s a major twist in the middle that’s a real groaner through its mixture of predictability and stark implausibility), but by heck did I have to work through some longueurs to get there. In a couple of chapter almost exactly nothing happens at all — in one all we get is a detailed description of a college library and why a particular student really likes it: fascinating stuff, eh? There are long analyses of motivations, and worthy but not especially original discussions of attitudes toward rape, sexism and of course the power/privilege axis. (It’s hard not to see the prime minister in the novel as David Cameron.)
All in all, Anatomy of a Scandal is a novel that’s in many ways of very great interest — arguably quite topical interest, too, on both sides of the Atlantic — even at the same time as it has, I’d suggest, some definite problems. It’s the kind of mixture that has me greatly looking forward to finding out what the author, distinguished former political journalist Sarah Vaughan, does with her next novel . . . or perhaps I should even take a look at her earlier The Farm at the Edge of the World.