The Sacrificial Man by Ruth Dugdall

The Sacrificial ManThe Sacrificial Man by Ruth Dugdall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall and loved it, I was thrilled to get a review copy of Dugdall’s second novel about probation officer Cate Austin through NetGalley.
The Sacrificial Man is a gripping, can’t-stop-reading, kind of novel. It follows a similar structure to The Woman Before Me, in that it follows our “criminal,” in this case Alice Mariani, beautiful, narcissistic, and convicted of assisting in a suicide. The novel also follows Cate Austin, the probation officer assigned to evaluate Alice. Cate has to make a recommendation to the judge as to whether Alice should go to prison, a mental hospital, or receive a community order. Although this series is ostensibly about Cate Austin, in The Sacrificial Man, she fades into the background, and our central narrator, who actually addresses the reader directly, is Alice. I had mixed feelings about this dynamic; on the one hand, I would have liked to know more about Cate’s life, since this series is based on her cases. But on the other hand, Alice, in all her creepy brilliance, is a character who really steals the show, and her story naturally takes precedence in the novel.
My main issue with The Sacrificial Man is in choosing how to categorize it. I have a shelf for novels that deal with “big issues,” and I was really stumped as to whether or not this book belonged there. The Sacrificial Man was promoted as a book dealing with the moral complexities of assisted suicide, so I expected a thought-provoking, although fictional treatment of the subject. In fact, I found The Sacrificial Man to be more of a novel about obsession, secrets, and the dark side of human nature. It was absolutely successful at being a fascinating tale of damaged people who mix up love and pain. But it was more of a psychological thriller, than a serious look at the dynamics of assisted suicide.
Because of this, I actually enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. But it left me slightly confused. If Ruth Dugdall was aiming to write a gripping thriller, she succeeded totally. But if she was trying to bring new ideas to the table regarding the morality of assisted suicide, she missed the mark.
One other quibble I had with The Sacrificial Man was that, without giving away spoilers, I was not totally convinced by the explanation we were given for why Alice was attracted to the idea of helping someone to die.
In the final analysis, The Sacrificial Man was not a perfect novel, but it was a thoroughly engrossing read. Ruth Dugdall has a talent for creating scenes with emotional impact; in her first Cate Austin novel, her depictions of motherhood were deeply moving.  And in The Sacrificial Man, Dugdall’s descriptions of the final day of the suicidal man were raw, immediate, and had the ring of truth. While Dugdall is a mother, and therefore could be said to have experienced some of the feelings of love that she so powerfully recounts, I am impressed with her ability to capture the haunting isolation of a man about to commit suicide.
Dugdall’s ability to write unflinchingly about the darker side of love sets her work above and beyond most novels in the domestic-noir/thriller genre. Dugdall’s novels have gripping plot twists and chilling crimes, but their greatest strength is the raw emotions that they capture. I really enjoyed The Sacrificial Man, and will wait impatiently for Dugdall’s next novel.

View all my reviews

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. cleopatralovesbooks
    Jan 22, 2014 @ 13:18:25

    I loved both of these books but like you I found this one more difficult to categorise and on balance preferred The Woman Before Me. I wish Ruth Dugdall would write a new book 🙂


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