#SheReviews Reputation by Sarah Vaughan

July 5, 2022

The English word “Reputation” is defined definitively and far-reachingly as “the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something”. Certainly in all nations and societies in the world, one’s reputation is highly prized, albeit having the potential to be irrevocably diminished and tarnished by one reckless act, sometimes a plethora of reckless acts. In stellar English author and journalist, Sarah Vaughan’s, latest searing and indictive novel, the psychological thriller “Reputation”, reputations are stoically established, and yet tenuously and alarmingly altered, sometimes forever.

Set predominantly in modern-day London, England and also Portsmouth, England in the recent past, this highly illuminating and forensically researched novel focuses searchingly and tellingly on both the public and personal lives of Emma Webster, a forty-four year old English backbench MP in the opposition Labour government. Emma is known, both in parliament and among her sometimes supportive, sometimes divisive and sometimes antagonistic and even threatening and hostile constituents, career-definingly and ambitiously affirmingly as “the honourable member for Portsmouth South”.

In addition to being stridently ambitious and outspoken as an MP in the public domain, divorced Emma (her ex-husband, forty-seven year old David, an IT worker, is married to thirty-eight year old Caroline, a music teacher, who nudged her way into David and Emma’s marriage before stealthily becoming David’s new wife) is an unreservedly and fiercely protective and loyal mother to her fourteen year old daughter, Flora. Flora is highly perceptive and sensitive, although at-times feels adrift and lost in the world. 

Emma, having become an MP some four years earlier, is still young enough, and energetic enough, to be supremely idealistic about her intentions and motivations in serving as an MP. Previously working as a teacher (where she witnessed students of her’s having to access food banks and noticed students “falling down the cracks in a way they hadn’t seemed to quite as badly when Labour was in power”), Emma became motivated to enter the the bottom tiers of government as a local councillor, followed by the elitist (in England) and cut-throat world of federal government politics, that is as merciless to the public lives of government members in England as is the case in Australia, indeed even more so.

Emma is vehemently outspoken in her role on such issues as feminism, women’s safety and revenge porn. Regarding the latter, Emma strikes up a campaign for a law known as ‘Amy’s Law’, after Amy Jones, one of her constituents, committed suicide after her vengeful ex-boyfriend sent incriminating and highly personal photos of Amy to her parents and bosses among others.

Collaborating with Emma on her work on Amy’s Law is the political editor, Mike Stokes, of the high-selling national newspaper, the “Chronicle”. Emma and Mike had previously “worked together on a couple of stories”, and Emma feels she can categorically trust Mike (or can she?), and Emma is seen by the Chronicle staff as being a “top contact”. One night, after a decadent dinner together in a top-tier restaurant, Emma and Mike spend the night together, after which Emma rejects Mike as a potential partner, something which Mike doesn’t take too well.

When Flora sends a topless photo of her ex-friend, Leah (who has been bullying Flora and posing as a handsome and popular boy at school on social media, and having ‘chats’ with Flora posing as this boy), Emma goes unthinkingly into damage control. The police are inevitably involved, and Flora gets off with a with a stern caution.

Mike, who can sniff out trouble in all it’s guises, gets wind of Flora’s revengeful and emotive act, and attempts to rein Emma in to collaborating on a newspaper story about Flora’s at-this-time-secret, at least to the general public. When Emma refuses to co-operate on a story that will see the very public downfall of Flora, Mike threatens to do the story without Emma’s input, and name Flora in the story. This murky stale-mate all leads to Emma being put under surveillance by the Chronicle.

As well as feeling that she is consistently and sinisterly being followed, Emma is further entrenched in a state of perpetually high anxiety as she has for some time, whilst she has been an MP, received menacingly abusive texts, social media correspondence and letters. These forums have not only been used by hostile constituents to straightforwardly abuse Emma, but also to threaten and intimidate.

With the “perfect storm” of surveillance and threats that encompass every facet of Emma’s life lurking darkly in the shadows, Emma arrives home late one afternoon in the dark, to her London home, which she shares with MPs, Julia and Claire, to find the front door open, the house alarm not on and the entire dwelling in darkness. It is now that Emma’s life is entirely altered and sent on a trajectory of fear, shame and undermining by those in power in society and the general public (is it justified or not?).

Julia arrives home minutes after Emma, to find Emma beside an unconscious body at the bottom of the inside stairs. Things really get interesting, for the reader, because the body is that of Mike Stokes. It comes out through police investigations that someone posing as Emma (who insists she had not recently been in contact with Mike) contacted Mike saying she wanted to meet him at her London home.

Emma insists to Julia, and later the police and everyone she knows, even in an authoritative public statement, that she found Mike’s unconscious body upon entering the house. Holes in this statement soon appear, however, when Mike dies in hospital, and a post-mortem reveals that Mike had been struck in the face with keys (there is blood found on Emma’s keys) and had a bowl broken over his head (this bowl is found to be swept up and put in the outside rubbish bin at Emma’s).

Now, Emma has no option but to admit she has been lying, that there was indeed an altercation between her and Mike, that she struck him in the face with the keys and hit him over the head with the bowl, and that she kneed him.

The inevitable direction of the story is that Emma becomes charged with Mike’s murder, accused of pushing Mike Stokes “to his death”.

In the court case that is going to define Emma’s life, and that of her loved ones, going forward, the formidable and all-seeing Judge Costa presides. Working for the prosecution is Sonya Jackson, QC, a grenade-throwing and ruthlessly intimidating legal lion. The serenely confident QC representing Emma and fighting for the defence, Tom Tillett, is someone Emma is unmovingly reliant on, but will he be enough for Emma’s legal plight, in a situation where she may or may not be innocent. 

Judge Costa explains deliberately and tellingly her thoughts and directions regarding Emma’s trial, saying “The jury must grapple with two questions: whether the degree of force was grossly disproportionate, and it it wasn’t, whether it was unreasonable in the circumstances given the possible mitigating factors such as (Emma’s) shock at coming upon (Mike), the darkness of the house, (Emma’s) vulnerability and Mike’s behaviour at the time”.

Did Emma forcefully push Mike, intending to murder or seriously harm him, and did that push result in Mike falling to the bottom of the stairs and his later death? If Emma didn’t contact Mike saying she wanted to see him at her London home, who did? Who is Professor Marcus Jamieson, who says on social media that he taught Emma at university? What could Professor Jamieson possibly have to do with this case?

 Sarah Vaughan has written an exemplarily soaring, intelligent, thought-provoking and topical novel, shining a much-needed light on the life lived by a modern-day MP in the British parliament, in addition to the vagaries, mannerisms and tactics used in high-profile, and a multitude of other less highly reverberating, court cases in England today.

Sarah tells us in her “Acknowledgements” at the back of the book that ” ‘Reputation’ required more research than any of my previous novels”, and it most definitely is evident, from the intricately nuanced scenes in the courtroom, to police procedure and questioning efforts.

I loved this book, which captivated and held my attention, from the first spellbinding page to the last. Sarah has a gift for writing on the troubles which can find one in these modern times, and the dilemmas that have been prevalent in society for centuries. I am greatly looking forward to reading what Sarah writes next.

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