Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Bookback review of The Sacrificial Man

Synchronicity? Is that what they call it, when unconnected events chime with each other in unavoidable significance? Maybe it is just the human need to see patterns and make connections where there are none, but it's still weird when it happens. In a week that saw a storyline in Emmerdale echoed in a very personal documentary by Terry Pratchett considering the possibility of choosing the nature and time of his own end, I found myself reading The Sacrificial Man.

This is a book that is also about choosing your own ending – albeit with a few gruesome twists that I'm hoping Sir Terry doesn't have in mind.

We meet Robin on a railway station. A terminus. The end of the line. Technically, unless the continuity error is corrected in the final version of the book (I was privileged with a proof copy), the station in question is seldom the end of the line. It's a major through-route. But we'll let that rest. It's the danger you meet if you choose to set your books in real places. For dramatic purposes it is the end of the line.

Robin isn't her real name. It's one she chose when she started her search on the internet. And the person she found called himself "Smith". They got to know each other, knew their real names in the real world, but still chose to call one another by their chosen names. She loved the chirpy 'cheer-leader' sound of hers, he the anonymity of his, and vice versa. In each other they found what they'd been seeking.

Specifically Smith had found a woman willing to join him on the journey of a lifetime… to help [him] die.

Why Robin wants to do this is something she needs someone to understand. Specifically, she wants us, the readers, to know those things that she may not be willing to tell the police, the social workers, the other authority figures that will surely get involved when the deed is done. Dugdall makes us complicit by directing the narration at us, on a very personal level. It is as though by continuing to read, we give the character permission to continue on this path.

We are also given the means with which to afford her absolution for it, or not. For this isn't just her story, it's her mother's too.

1977: Matilde Mariani is a second generation immigrant; she's 17 years old, terrified of her father, indifferent to her subjected mother, and pregnant. By a quirk of biology she's too pregnant for anything to be done about it before anyone really notices. By a quirk of character she finds the strength to refuse to let her baby go.

Cut to the present: Cate Austin, Probation Officer, is handed a case she really doesn't want. Alice Mariani has been charged with assisted suicide and she has to recommend sentence.

From here Dugdall spins her tale from the three main perspectives: that of Alice/Robin (what happened, how, why); Cate's investigation (her meetings with Alice, information feeding in from elsewhere); and the past, in the voice of the disembodied omniscient narrator, who primarily gives us more background for Alice/Robin. These episodes are stripped of the manipulative feel of Alice's own expositions aimed directly at the reader, but they are still heavily weighted in her favour. This is how it was, they say. And it was NOT nice.

Alice is clear: what she did she did for love. Smith wanted to die. He must have had his reasons, but they didn't talk about them. Even when he cast his last requests in a spiritual pseudo-Christianity vein (the blood and body), she did not question him. You do not question what you do for love. The evidence is there. The letter he wrote is clear.

Is this normal… is this love or loyalty… or is this something more? Or less?

Was this an assisted suicide (upon which the law looks increasingly leniently) – or was it murder? That is Cate's dilemma. It should not be so. The jury has spoken. There is no question of murder. All our probation officer has to do is recommend a sentence in the light of the perpetrator's mental state and likelihood to be a danger to herself or others. But Cate is not so sure… something about Alice has her digging deeper…

As a novel about the criminal justice system, as a thriller, as a literary exploration of the character of damaged individuals The Sacrificial Man scores on every level. It's gripping. It makes you slightly queasy in places. It forces you to question your prejudices at every step of the way. Reader sympathy is shunted around the cast-list as the tale plays out. Everyone has something to hide; everyone has a reason. Until a different reason comes along.

Stylistically, it's well pitched with exposition allowing us time to think about the potential psychological insights suddenly whipped away back into assertion or dialogue that gives us no time to breath and reinforces or counters our conclusions in equal measure.

As an addition to the expanding canon of fiction and non-fiction discourse on the rights and wrongs of allowing the "right to life" to encompass "a right to end it", rather than being transmuted into "an obligation to live", Dugdall manages to squeeze in powerful arguments on both sides of the debate.

As the second contribution to what looks set to be a series of Cate Austin novels it is well balanced. Enough of Cate's family life and personal dilemmas are exposed to draw readers to the character, but only just enough. We're not burdened with back-story that we don't need. The focus remains resolutely on the case in hand, which enables the book to stand solidly on its own account.

The book is heartily recommended… and the author is one to watch.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

First review of The Sacrificial Man!

The Sacrificial Man
by Ruth Dugdall
Release Date: 1st Jul 2011
Publisher: Legend Press
ISBN: 978 1 9082 4800 8
RRP: £7.99

Walking the tightrope between what is morally right and wrong is more dangerous that you think...
I had never contemplated the justice system from the probationary officer’s perspective. This entirely unglamorous, rarely discussed occupation is startlingly powerful and yet has mysteriously fallen between the cracks of literature; that is, until Ruth Dugdall created Cate Austin and opened up a whole new dimension to our legal system.

Alice Mariani has been found guilty of “assisted suicide”; an illegal act in Britain, despite protestations that suicide is a personal choice and if that individual wishes to take their own life; that is their right and anyone present or involved should not be subsequently punished. Austin’s job is to provide the court with a recommendation on the length and type of sentence that is handed down, but she’s stuck with Mariani. Her story doesn’t quite ring true and the abrupt psychotic break that lands her in a psychiatric ward fails to assuage Austin’s suspicions. The problem is: all the evidence clearly points to suicide. There’s a note written by the ‘victim’, a raft of email correspondence detailing his desire to overdose and for Mariani to be there – even to eat a part of him as well as precedents set across Europe. Mariani’s side of the story hangs on an unlikely love affair that grew out of the victim’s desire to die. The mode of death was meticulously planned, ritualistic, almost spiritual – but still Austin cannot shake a feeling of unease. It is the victim’s diary that finally sheds light on the true motivations behind the victim’s death-wish, the cannibalism playing a pivotal part and as Austin reads on, she discovers that victim may be murderer and murderer may be victim.

The Sacrificial Man is unflinching in its analysis of the complexity of the human psyche: the rationalisation of unfathomable acts of self-mutilation; the horror that lurks in the broken mind; the sickness that twists the moral compass beyond recognition. There is also the inscrutable lightness: the bond between teenage mother and child, the adulation that would lead you to do anything to stopper your loved-one’s pain… It is the clash of light and dark, sweet and bitter, destructive and tender that Dugdall emblazons the story into your retinas and into your brain. As repulsive as it is compulsive; The Sacrificial Man takes us on a sobering journey into a world of psychosis, sexual abuse, neglect, drug addiction, cannibalism and an act so horrific in conception it can only be described as evil.

Dugdall challenges our preconceptions on just about every emotive topic out there. Bold and clever in her storytelling, she forces a spotlight into the darkest corners of humanity. But what really chills is the realisation that whilst we can look away, back to the light; a probationary officer lives with the dark.

*The Truth About Books review*

On being 40...

Today is my birthday. I woke up singing the Sugar Cubes song `Birthday` and realised when I got to "they're smoking cigars" that it's a totally different type of birth-day, but you get the idea.
To be honest, it feels like it was my birthday yesterday what with being on Radio 4. Here's the link, if you missed it:

I was as pleased for my Dad as for me, as he listens to it every morning whilst he's shaving so for him it gives me the `stamp of credibility`. Afterwards, the team at Legend Press took me for lunch, including a bottle of champagne that the waiter reduced by 40% in honour of my birthday, and I came home to more celebrating as the Amazon ranking for all my novels was already benefit ting from the `Jenni factor`. Amazon have also reduced The Woman Before Me & The Sacrificial Man to just £4.

Happy at 40? You betcha!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

An outside chance...

I was please to read a review by Mike Ripley (he of SHOTSMAG) yesterday that described me as a `dark horse`in the field of crime writers and `one to watch`.
After all, who wants to be the tipped favourite, the one with short odds and everything to lose?

I remember being interviewed on Radio Suffolk by Georgina Wroe just after THE WOMAN BEFORE ME had been long listed for the New Angle Prize for literature, alongside such stellar writers as Blake Morrison and Ronald Blythe. It was the day after the gold cup, which I'd had a bet on, and I said to Georgina that I felt a bit like the horse that's been bought by a group of locals who clubbed together, kept in a stable in a field somewhere. There is love and passion in that, but not a huge amount of capital. Also in the race are horses from prestigious stables (think Hodder, think Penguin) and these animals have glossy coats and the best trainers...

And they're under starters orders...

So, THE SACRIFICIAL MAN is out in three weeks time, and will be vying for summer sales along with other books backed by big budgets and publicity tours while I'm hoofing it (pardon the pun!) from Windsor to Woking hoping to flog a few books to the unsuspecting public.
There is an outside chance that THE SACRIFICIAL MAN could make it as a bestseller - the odds are stacked, but I have everything to play for, and not much to lose. So, here goes nothing...

Want to support me? Then please buy the book or order it at your local library.
And if I'm book signing in a store near you, please pop in and say hi!

Another way you can help is to take a moment to vote for THE WOMAN BEFORE ME as People's Book Choice. Just click this link:
You have to register to vote (if you've already voted they'll send you a reminder of your password if you need it) and put a cross in the box. Voting is free, but prizes of books and tickets to the final are given out to randomly selected voters. I'm grateful to everyone who takes the time to vote for me. Another advantage of being the outside runner - everything is a bonus!