Book Review – The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

First published, 1957

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The story follows John, an Englishman in France in the mid-1950s. A specialist in French history and culture, John is taking a holiday but can’t escape the feeling that his life lacks the depth and meaning brought by others. He considers himself an observer of mankind, a man apart, and a man lacking that indefinable something that truly makes the human experience.

Stopping off at a bar on his way to a spiritual retreat (which, to my mind, is the perfect way to start a spiritual retreat), John finds himself assaulted by the sight of a man who is his exact double. The only real difference between them is that Jean, a Frenchman, has a family and a huge amount of responsibility weighing on his shoulders.

When the two of them repair to a slightly slummy hotel to talk over their lives and regrets, Englishman John cannot know that when he wakes up, Jean will have taken his car, his ID, and his clothes, and left him to deal with his problems at home.

But will John, suddenly head of a household including a morbidly obese, addict mother, silent sister, abrupt brother, slinky sister-in-law, horrifyingly precocious daughter, and heavily pregnant wife, turn tail at the earliest opportunity and head back to Blighty? Or will he find sanctuary and fulfilment in the dysfunctional Family de Gué? And is who we are defined by other people’s expectations and prior experience?

Oh how I love Daphne du Maurier. Her prose is rich, her characters clearly defined and her ability to subvert expectation is without peer. Not one of her better known works, I hadn’t heard of The Scapegoat before tweeting my love of Rebecca. My heartfelt thanks to another of my favourite authors, Stella Duffy, for this recommendation.

“I walked past the lorry and across the Place to the brasserie at the corner; and suddenly the pale sun shone from the fitful sky, and the people thronging the Place, who had seemed black smudges in the rain, crow-like, bent, impersonal, became animated blobs of colour, smiling, gesticulating, strolling about their business with new leisure as the sky fell apart, turning the dull day to gold.
“The brasserie was crowded, the atmosphere thick with the good smell of food, soupy and pungent – of cheese upon sauce-tipped knives, spilt wine, the bitter dregs of coffee – and rank, too, with the wet cloth of coats heavily rained upon, now drying, the whole scene framed in a blue smoke-cloud of Gauloise cigarettes.”
p7, Chapter One, The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

Happy sigh.