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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John Boyne A Ladder to the Sky

Book Review | A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Maurice Swift is single-minded in pursuit of his goal: to be one of the most eminent writers of his generation. The only problem is that he is essentially talentless, Machiavellian, and a master manipulator of everyone he meets.

He seizes the opportunity to befriend lonely, successful writer Erich Ackermann in a West Berlin hotel. The year is 1988, and Erich is in the city for a reading of his latest novel. Ingratiating himself into Erich’s orbit, helped in no small measure by his startling good looks and boyish charisma, Erich hires him as his assistant to accompany him on his book tour. Throughout the months they spend together, Maurice coaxes out of the old man a terrible admission from his childhood in Nazi Germany. Spotting perfect fodder for his debut novel, Maurice publishes the story to wide critical acclaim, propelling himself to stratospheric heights – as Erich is denounced, despised and laid waste.

“Did you ever wish you had a wife?” asked Dash. “Did you ever wish that you could just have lived a normal life instead of suffering the endless pain that men like us undergo, falling for beautiful boys who will never stay with us, no matter what we do for them?”

So Erich marks the first of Maurice’s victims, in a propulsive and wickedly enjoyable psychological drama that takes us across Europe and across the next three decades, leaving a quiet trail of devastation in its wake. The novel is narrated through every perspective other than that of Maurice – until the very end. And Maurice is in equal parts repulsive and enthralling to the reader, with so few scruples and yet the depths to which he will sink continue to surprise us, leaving a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach each time his latest deviance is revealed.

John Boyne is a masterful storyteller, and he writes characters with such insight and wit. It takes talent to juggle the crafting of three-dimensional and compelling perspectives alongside a wild ride of a plot, satirizing the world of publishing and the depths to which writers are driven for commercial and literary success, and all the while the tension mounts.

“How often do we see people as we want them to be, rather than as who they actually are?”

Witty, chilling and captivating – John Boyne is cementing himself as an author on my must-read list.

The Push by Ashley Audrain

Book Review | The Push by Ashley Audrain

There’s a certain toxicity around notions of motherhood. I’m not a parent, but friends have spoken of the horrors of the internet forum Mumsnet, where everyone has 101 opinions on the only right way to raise children. The pressure on mothers is a particular and peculiar kind of scrutiny that fathers, by and large, escape from. It is mothers who are under the microscope, bound to societal expectations of unflinching devotion and dedication.

In Ashley Audrain’s debut novel, Blythe is all-too-aware of the immensity of parenthood. And whilst her husband, Fox, has a picture-perfect mother to model his own parenting on, Blythe comes from several generations of mothers who are at best absent, at worst abusive.

The narrative flips between the present in Blythe’s voice, and back through the generations as Blythe’s mother and grandmother chart the dysfunctional and disturbing accounts of their own childhoods.

‘We are all grown from something. We carry on the seed, and I was part of her garden.’

It doesn’t have to be the same for Blythe, though – does it? Putting her misgivings to one side, she and Fox have a baby girl, Violet. With the arrival of Violet, Blythe struggles to remember who she is – feeling that her life is now devoted to taking care of a baby who appears to love Fox but recoil from her touch. There’s an expectation gap separating the ideal – gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes – and the real, a baby who screams constantly. And it is this lack of a bond with Violet that Audrain explores unflinchingly throughout the novel. When the pair have another baby, and tragedy strikes, things spiral for them all.

‘Motherhood is like that – there is only the now. the pain of now, the relief of now. the despair of now, the hope.’

It was intriguing and refreshing to hear a story that isn’t often told; one that sheds light on a darker and likely more common than we’d think phenomenon. Audrain explores the guilt and shame that Blythe feels, and yet she is also an unreliable narrator. We are so deep into her psyche that we can’t help but question the way she sees her daughter. And yet by casting aspersions upon her lived experience, we are no better than the reams of people in her life who do not believe her, who silently brand her a hysterical woman, a bad mother.

The second-person narration in Blythe’s narrative, addressing her account to ‘you’, her husband Fox, is cleverly-done. I felt that the flashbacks to the accounts of her mother and grandmother were somewhat lacking – they felt like they slowed down the pace without providing us with that much insight, beyond ‘traumatic childhood.’ This is very much a psychological drama, rather than a thriller, and should be treated as such – don’t go into it expecting twists and turns, as major plot developments are few and far between – which doesn’t help with the pacing. I liked the novel for exploring a lesser-seen experience of motherhood, but felt that the reading experience was hampered by the pace and the lack of depth to the narrative.

With thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced review copy. The Push will be published by Penguin Michael Joseph on January 7th, 2021.