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Gripping and complex, The Scapegoat is a masterful exploration of doubling and identity, and of the dark side of the self.
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By Ilana on 03-16-15
A Fascinating Character-Driven Journey
John is an Englishman who has spent years travelling to France to learn of its history and language, going back to England to teach about his favourite subject at university for his day job. One day while on vacation, he chances to meet a man who looks exactly like him, a Frenchman called Jean. The likeness is uncanny and the other man offers him to share some drinks. After a night of heavy drinking in a hotel room exchanging confidences, John wakes up the next day dressed in the Frenchman's clothes with the man's suitcase there instead of his own, and not a single of his own belongings or identity papers left behind to prove he is anyone else than the Comte Jean de Gué. It becomes amply clear when this man's driver arrives and tells him he's probably had too much to drink after John tries to tell him what has happened, that he won't convince anyone that he is not in fact the Comte. His French is perfect, and for some reason, seeing himself in a mirror wearing the other man's clothes, he discovers the illusion is faultless; he stands a little bit more erect and even finds himself smiling and talking like his doppelgänger, so he decides there is no choice but to go along and play the role he's been stuck with, and lets the driver bring him to Jean de Gué's château to meet the other man's family. Jean had told him he yearned to have a simpler life, with less commitments and fewer belongings, while John felt he'd failed at his own life, and now is a chance to try something else altogether.
Soon John finds himself enmeshed in a complicated web of lies and intrigues, with a grand house full of women and various strangers, most of whom seem angry at him. And then there is a great big beastly woman upstairs he is astounded to find looks like himself but in drag with a huge amount of flesh added on; Jean's mother, which he can't help but call 'maman' and feel real affection for. Nobody takes him seriously when he tells them outright he is not Jean, but an Englishman called John, and that the real Jean has made off with his clothes and his car; they all dismiss his story as yet another one of Jean's pranks, or a consequence of too much drink. Instead a man angrily demands how the trip to Paris went and whether he's gotten the papers signed. John slowly untangles the mystery, starting with figuring out who the various individuals are, what Jean was meant to do in Paris, why everyone is angry with him, and then, taking a liking to the man's various family members and employees despite their faults of character, trying to improve everyone's life and atone for Jean's shortcomings, bumbling along all the while.
There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy this novel as fully as I did. After all, how is it possible that the man's own family, even his own mother and daughter, not recognize that something isn't quite right here? Can John's accent be truly so faultless? Can't they 'see' these are two completely different personalities? But this character-driven story about identity and how one man views another through the eyes of others, and then tries to improve him according to his own set of very different principles, proved to be a fascinating journey. Highly recommended.
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