Dugdall, Ruth - 'The Sacrificial Man'
In this well-constructed, assured novel, probation officer Cate Austin, whom we first met in THE WOMAN BEFORE ME, is assigned (to her reluctance) the case of Alice Mariani, a woman who has admitted assisting a friend to commit suicide. Cate has to decide on a suitable sentence to recommend to the court – basically custodial or a secure hospital - to which end she has to meet and get to know the young woman, who is convinced that she has committed no crime, to assess her mental state.
Some of the book is told from Alice's perspective, some from Alice's mother's, and some from Cate's. Alice is an apparently self-confident person who lives alone in an expensive house, enjoying a luxury lifestyle. How she came to be in this position gradually transpires, via the story of Alice's mother when a child, and of Alice's own childhood. At their first meeting, Alice is superior and in control, convinced that she can easily manipulate the plain, less-confident Cate, a woman whose husband abandoned her when their daughter was just a few months old. Cate, however, is no pushover and is determined to get to the bottom of how Alice came to find someone via the Internet who wanted help in dying, and why she was so keen to assist.
It isn't too difficult for the reader to guess why "Mr Smith" wants to die, but the details are obscure to the reader until near the end of the book, when Cate's investigation and Alice's back-story come to fruition. I did not think, when I started this book, that I could have any sympathy for Alice, but as I learned more about her, I was drawn into her story, which is admirably paced by the author to build up the tension. There is a twist to this tale which packs a punch – and shows rather tellingly that the consequences of choices are not necessarily related to what we choose to reveal.
There is a great deal to like about this book. It is a readable, very well-plotted tale, with believable and sympathetic characters. I particularly liked the understated jousting between Alice and Cate, as Alice homes in on Cate's perceived weaknesses but fails for some time to truly recognise the position she herself is in. Cate is a less vivid character than Alice, but I like the resolute way she deals with her weak ex-husband and the various male authority figures she encounters in her work. Above all, this novel is a great tale of psychological suspense, and I recommend it very highly.
Maxine Clarke, England
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