My rating: 4 stars
Even if two men look exactly the same, the way in which they interact with other people is bound to be different. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier offers an interesting perspective on how such disparities in behaviour have consequences in the lives of others. The main allure of this novel is to discover more about the past of the characters, which explains their current behaviour, at the same time as the narrator, particularly because they wrongly believed that he had the same knowledge as them.
The narrator is a lecturer on French history and language from England who at the beginning of the book was travelling around France. While at a station buffet, he saw a man, Jean de Gué, whose appearance and voice were exactly like his. The resemblance was undeniable. It was like looking straight into a mirror. They drank and had dinner together. Jean de Gué was eager to know more about the narrator’s life and was particularly interested in him not having a family, something that he considered to be freeing.
Jean decided to rent a room for the night and they had a few more drinks there. When the narrator woke up the next day, Jean was gone and had stolen his wallet and clothes. Jean’s chauffeur was there to pick him up and was fully convinced that the narrator was his employer. After unsuccessfully trying to explain that he was not Jean, he gradually ended up deciding to also assume the place of his doppelgänger. But it was only when they were getting close to Jean’s house that he completely realised the full extent of what he was doing.
“A surging wave of apprehension, and indeed of terror, engulfed me totally. I knew the meaning of the word panic in its full sense.”
As soon as the narrator entered the house, he had to start interacting with people that he knew nothing about and that were certain that he was Jean. These included the mother, the sister and the wife, but not only. There were more people living there whose relationship with Jean remains a mystery for a while. He also soon realised that he was now the manager of a failing glass-foundry.
To slowly discover more about each character’s relation to Jean and uncover information about his past is almost always compelling. Daphne du Maurier’s talent is particularly noticeable when the nature of some relationships can be inferred first by the readers and only afterwards does the narrator recalls the time when he discovered the truth behind them. The family is shrouded in mystery, seeing that the narrator had no idea why they behaved in certain ways. Events from the past are gradually revealed through conversations.
The way in which the dialogues are written is convincing. They don’t feel forced or awkward. They successfully convey that one person knows all of the background information connected with that conversation, while the other has no idea what is being talked about but successfully prevents that ignorance from being perceived.
The absorbing writing style encourages readers to want to know more about the characters and to discover what was troubling them. Marie Noel’s innocence is particularly endearing, though some of her actions and their connection with religion are troublesome. But that also arouses curiosity. Why did she behave in that way? The actions of Jean’s sister are also intriguing. What happened to her in the past?
From the beginning, the narrator reveals distinguishable traits. He was unhappy and disenchanted with his life, reason why he probably ended up deciding to assume Jean’s place. Du Maurier conveys with great aptitude that disenchantment through the narrator’s initial introspective musings. Although the people that lived in the house were not truly his family, he was concerned about them and their well-being, having started to despise Jean even more for leaving them. He also showed great empathy for the workers.
Throughout the novel, there’s a clear sense of place. The descriptions paint a clear picture of the characters’ surroundings, both in terms of images and sounds. At certain points, they match the mood of the story.
“The sky had clouded. There was not the radiant blue of yesterday, and an autumn pallor masked a watery sun. The château itself looked grey and frigid on its plot of ground encircled by the moat, and although the long windows of the salon were thrown open they were not inviting: only darkness came from within.”
The pacing of the book is not always ideal, unfortunately. Almost around two thirds of the way, the story becomes momentarily monotonous. I had the feeling that something highly significant for the development of the plot should already have happened. Soon after, however, not only are some events about the past, which justify the behaviours of certain characters, revealed, but also something tragic happens. I was completely enthralled again!
Overall, The Scapegoat is a convincing story of discovery. By engaging with other people and unearthing information about their past, the narrator also learnt more about himself.