Set in the French countryside in the 20th century, The Scapegoat is a story of doppelgängers, John and Jean. When the two meet by accident, John had been leading a life as a university professor; his lack of motivation and low self-worth marring all his actions.
But when he wakes up after a night of hanging out with Jean, he realizes that the latter has disappeared with all his belongings, and John is now being mistaken for his look-alike despite him insisting otherwise.
Unlike in some of her other works, Daphne du Maurier spends very little time establishing the backdrop of the story before diving right into the plot. That is not to say her flowery writing is missing in this book. You’ll just as easily find yourself transported to the château and the town, her writing a sensory treat every step of the way.
I enjoyed reading this book far more than I did Jamaica Inn, which was our last month’s group read pick. First of all, the plot is an intriguing one. It tests the virtues and ethics of mankind by posing the billion-dollar question – if you could be anyone else, who would you be?
John is someone who doesn’t hold himself in high regard. He barely has any genuine connections of his own. So you can see how Jean’s life, with all its wealth, opportunities & relations, would be entirely appealing to him.
As the story progresses, we see John step into multiple roles – of father, business owner, lover – all of which were foreign to him only a day ago. It speaks to his character that, despite being dealt a bad hand, he pulls off integrating completely into Jean’s life, using his quick-thinking and courteous nature to try and mend all that Jean had left broken.
Perhaps that’s the ambiguity of the title. Who really is the scapegoat, who had the most to gain?
Even though there are a lot of characters in this novel, I didn’t think that any of their presence felt unnecessary. The author expertly places them in relevant positions across the story; to have them play crucial roles in bringing out this other side of John, one he has either been suppressing or totally unaware of.
Some of the themes incorporated in the story are religion, the impact of war, and substance abuse.
For the majority of the novel, I didn’t think that having a dual-POV narrative would’ve been better; I was that engrossed with John’s storyline. With every scene, it almost seems like the sword over his head is lowering bit by bit, and that builds a great deal of apprehension.
But by the end, I began to be curious about Jean and why he is the way he is. This has mostly to do with the picture painted of him by his staff and family members, and the bitterness that is still palpable in his demeanour.
Without revealing too much, I’ll just say that I would’ve liked for the ending to have been somewhat different. It didn’t seem fair to one character.
On the whole, if you are looking for a historical fiction novel that has an air of mystery and is a portrait of the fundamental motivations of humans, you should give The Scapegoat a try!