Book Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier

I would love to have been Daphne Du Maurier. Not only does her life read like a great, enjoyable romp, we also share many of the same interests, an obsession with the past being one of them. Du Maurier made her own family’s history the subject of several books, wrote Branwell Brontë’s biography, and tackled the allure of time-travel in a convincing and poetic way in The House On The Strand. I can only marvel at her talents because I’m distinctly lacking in fictional output.

Cover of "The Scapegoat" by Daphne Du Maurier

The Scapegoat, published in 1957, deals with familiar Du Maurier subjects: identity and self, unknown territories, feelings of belonging, and spiritual questions. It appealed to me instantly when I read the synopsis, and I wasn’t disappointed. John, the otherwise nameless narrator, is holidaying in France, a country he loves but in which he cannot feel truly accepted. He has no family at home in London, and his depression and aimlessness has reached the point at which he considers joining a Trappist monastery. By chance, he meets Jean, a Frenchman who would be his exact opposite — loud, extrovert and head of a large family — if he didn’t look exactly like John. Stunned, they start talking and drinking together, until John passes out. On waking the next day, he finds Jean is gone, having taken John’s car and belongings, and himself assumed to be Jean du Gué and driven to “his” château and family.

Anybody in their right mind would at this point alert the police and report their identity stolen (John, after all, is an Englishman and could easily prove that his native tongue is not French), but that wouldn’t make for a good story. John is strongly conflicted about his identity, and has just spent an entire holiday trying to get away from himself. He is also aware that his counterpart has unfairly deserted his own life, so there are no expectations that John feels he needs to fulfill; a mean streak in himself tells him he should just enjoy the ride and damn the consequences. So he delves into Jean’s story and meets his family, who all accept him as their husband, son, brother, and father. Nobody but the dog notices a difference, and through sheer luck, John manages to puzzle together the story of the Gué family. The family business is failing, and Jean has failed to secure a new contract in Paris. His family has little faith in his business skills, since he has never been interested in his duties as an older brother and heir. Little by little, the cracks in the family get exposed: Jean’s mother has a morphine habit, his sister hasn’t spoken to him in fifteen years, his brother is frustrated, his wife sad, and his daughter obsessed with Catholic saints. Where in a lesser romantic novel, John would set about turning it all around and spread happiness, John the scapegoat frets, doubts and tries, but fails miserably. All of his attempts at being the “new” Jean de Gué bring yet more misery, and he has to admit defeat. When things are finally turning around, and John accepts his place in the family, Jean returns…

Much of the novel’s appeal stems from the exploration of John’s troubled inner life. Du Maurier has a habit of following her character’s trains of thought through to the very end, which makes for page after page of detailed fretting and to-and-froing. It can be taxing, but it’s all there for a reason. John is a troubled soul, and the challenges he faces are unlike anything he’s had to deal with before. He has a good heart, but he realises that that’s not always enough. He is also a profoundly lonely man, and even when things are finally looking up for the Gué family, he knows that he himself will never get any credit for it. He is never complete, or completely himself: Throughout the novel, he sees himself first as a broken man, then as an empty vessel filled with the duties of someone else. Later, he recognises a new person emerging, a mixture of himself and Jean, and towards the end, both characters seem to have formed a new, autonomous person that neither of them were before. The ending is far from happy. Broken, replaced and without past or future, John leaves; he realizes that he will need to be reborn completely. There is hope in all this, but a very vague one.

The Scapegoat is an interesting, engrossing novel full of food for thought. The exploration of John’s multiple identities could fill volumes of scholarly work, but the story also stands by itself. It’s captivating and dark, yet beautiful. Its sense of place is amazing, and from the outset, you can feel with John in his longing to be a part of the French countryside and its people. Du Maurier really knew how to write a novel, and I’m not even jealous. That’s how much I love her.

By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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