Our lives are inextricably shaped by the material facts of our birth. And for the young men living their gilded youths at Oxford University in the early 1990s, they’re pretty much untouchable. Our narrator describes the ‘smooth, smiling faces’ of ‘men who will sail through life: Eton, Oxford, parliament, government.’
And twenty-five years later, these men have risen to seats of power, just as they always expected to. In close-enough to the present day (although 2016 seems like a lifetime ago now), our narrator Kate Woodcroft is a prosecutor, specialising in convicting perpetrators of sexual assault.
One day, the papers get their hands on a grubby new story: a junior Tory minister, James Whitehouse, has been caught with his trousers down as his affair with a much younger member of staff is exposed. The Prime Minister being a close friend from Oxford, James is reassured the whole nasty matter will quickly blow over – until his mistress, Olivia, comes forward with an accusation of rape. James’s wife, Sophie, determines to remain the doting and devoted wife, even as doubt begins to gnaw at her.
What follows is a nail-biting courtroom drama, where driven, successful Kate is convinced of James’s guilt – but has her work cut out in trying to ensure justice is served. The world of the court is one that she admits is ‘archaic, anachronistic, privileged, exclusive’. And these privileged, white, upper-class men truly believe them are impervious to the rules – of law, of morality, of common decency. (It was interesting to read this not long after the story broke of the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, having an affair with a coworker in the midst of stringent lockdowns where you weren’t allowed to hug your mum, much less fornicate with a colleague…)
‘“I sometimes wonder if we spoiled him. Let him believe that his opinion was always right? I suppose school inculcated that feeling—and Charles, of course, never brooking an argument. Perhaps it’s a male thing? That complete self-belief: the conviction that you never need doubt your opinion. The girls don’t have it and neither do I. He was like it as a little boy: always lying at Cluedo; always cheating at Monopoly, insisting he could change the rules. He was so sweet, so persuasive, he got away with it. I wonder if that’s why he thinks he still can?”’
Vaughan shifts timelines and perspectives, keeping the varied pace of the novel and giving us historical context that feeds into the present-day drama which is unfurling. Whilst there aren’t many twists and turns to be had, this is suspenseful and well-crafted book that lays bare the lives of the rich and powerful, puts consent and conviction under a microscope, and explores the ramifications of toxic masculinity – when combined with money and privilege, a lethal cocktail. A slow burn, but a recommended read nonetheless.