reputation by sarah vaughan - book review

Book review: In ‘Reputation’ by Sarah Vaughan, a female politician risks losing everything ★★★★

Emma Webster is an MP – a politician who has risen through the ranks and worked bloody hard to get there. She’s no stranger to violent misogynistic attacks, particularly given her work in campaigning for so-called “women’s issues”, most recently the sentencing for revenge porn. But because she’s a woman in the public eye, she’s considered ‘fair game.’ Hateful tirades can be sent via Twitter, text, or post – but as long as there is no explicit threat, there’s nothing the police can do.

In her life, the constant threat of (male) violence is normalized. She keeps bottles of water on the desk at meetings with constituents – not in case of a bout of thirst, but to save her life in case of an acid attack. It’s a high price to pay to be a politician with a rising star, and Vaughan conveys the very real terror as part of the necessary fabric of her life.

‘A conviction politician, that’s what she was, and all the more refreshing for it. There were too few of them around these days.’

So there’s the threat of the insidious trolls hiding behind Twitter handles like @englandrules and @suckmyc*ck, never quite knowing whether one of them might step out from behind their keyboard and put a bomb through her letterbox. And then there’s the tabloid media, always looking for the next story that’s going to sell them papers (side note: anyone interested in the savagery of the British tabloids should listen to The Murdoch Phone Hacking miniseries on the British Scandal podcast).

Over the years, Emma has befriended journalist Mike Stokes, political editor of tabloid The Chronicle (his colleagues call her an ‘MPILF’). She knows how it works: the little dance that politicians do with the media, trying to keep them on side. Of course, he has a job to do: to sell papers and rise through the ranks himself.

‘I’d underestimated him, not wanting to consider the extent of his ruthlessness. And later? Well, then his ability to turn on me became painfully, fatally clear.’

It’s a smart, tightly plotted read – somewhere between a courtroom drama, political thriller and domestic noir. The second half of the novel is set in a courtroom where Emma is on trial, and it’s truly mesmerizing to watch the whip-smart wordplay between the prosecution and the defence, to see how the truth can be bent and shaped to different ends.

I enjoyed Anatomy of a Scandal (soon to be a Netflix show), and equally enjoyed Reputation for its multi-layered plot that never lets up. Qualms: I wished the secondary characters were better fleshed out, as when the narration slipped into their POV it felt more like a device to move the plot along, and one of the secondary plots about mental health support for returning servicemen also failed to be wrapped up in a satisfying way. However, I enjoyed this thought-provoking and pacy read a lot, and it’s very much in-keeping with the cultural conversation about misogyny, online abuse, and being a woman in the public eye.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. Reputation will be published in the UK on 2nd March, in the US on 5th July.

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