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BOOK REVIEW: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

| 1 February 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Simon & Schuster Ltd
January 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction / Modern & Contemporary Fiction

85% Rocking

He’s a well-respected man around London town. Or is he? In Sarah Vaughan’s third novel she examines a rape trial involving a charming, family man who works as a Tory politician. The result is a well-written and timely look at betrayal, power, and passion.

‘There is no dispute that this event took place. Both sides acknowledge that what is in dispute is the nature of it. Was this, as the Crown submits, something sinister: an act forced upon Miss Lytton by the defendant? Was it, in fact, a rape? Or was it, as the defence will submit, an act of passion: a frenzied bout of lovemaking by two individuals caught up in the moment?”

At the heart of this novel is a moral quandary – like those often explored by Ian McEwan. The reader will sit there questioning whether this powerful man is a rapist or the victim of a vengeful lover. Vaughan delves into the murky area of consent and relationship rape, one that her character even acknowledges is difficult to get to the bottom of:

Juries are keen to convict the predatory rapist, the archetypal bogeyman down a dark alley, yet when it comes to relationship rape, they’d really rather not know, thank you very much.

This story is predominantly told from the perspectives of the two women who are integral to the case. There is Kate Woodcroft, a young prosecutor and QC who is determined that James is guilty of the crime. Her chapters are in first person and are very rich and visceral. The alternate view is provided by James Whitehouse’s wife, Sophie. She is supportive of her husband even though he has cheated on her with a young, blonde research assistant named Olivia Lytton. Olivia is alleging that she was raped by James in a lift at the House of Commons.

‘I know for definite that she never asked me to stop,’ he says. ‘At no moment was I under the impression that she didn’t want it.’
And Sophie, knowing her husband – his love of sex, his self-absorption, his relaxed attitude to the truth; his slipperiness – and it pains her to pinpoint all this now – is left with an unpalatable feeling. She is not sure if she quite believes him.

In addition to the alternating viewpoints from 2017, Vaughan also includes chapters set in 1992 at Oxford University. These may seem a little over-the-top and tricky to navigate at first, but they are neatly resolved. These construct a satisfying and complex portrait of what made the future James Whitehouse: family man and government minister.

Sophie has never thought of her husband as a liar.
She knows he dissembles, yes. That’s part of his job: a willingness to be economical with the truth. A prerequisite, even for a government minister.
But she has never imagined he would lie to her. Or rather, that he might have a life she knows nothing about: a secret that could detonate beneath her lovingly maintained world and blow it apart forever.

Vaughan does an excellent job of dealing with some sensitive and complicated subject matter. She constructs quite a tense undercurrent through a series of slow reveals. This hooks the reader into this world of dark drama and elevates it above your average courtroom procedural. Vaughan is a former political journalist and this story feels so authentic, you’ll almost think it’s non-fiction.

This case – and the likelihood of James Whitehouse getting off – has affected me in a way it usually wouldn’t. For, despite the heat of my fury, I am good at remaining emotionally detached…
But not this time. This case is under my skin. And the odds are stacked against us.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a taut, psychological thriller. Vaughan’s prose is explosive and descriptive, as she dismantles a tough and challenging rape case with deft hands. She examines the machinations of politics and power and how they influence the scales of justice. In short, she dares you to question everything.

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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