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.