“His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet – review

On a summer’s day in 1869, Lachlan Mackenzie is found brutally murdered at his home in the tiny Highland community of Culduie.  The perpetrator, 17 year old Roderick Macrae, confesses to the crime within minutes, but although there is never any question or who, there is still the all-important question of why.  This clever novel takes the form of a compilation of documents – medical reports, journalists’ articles and so on – that are brought together with the aim of finding an answer.  And the answer matters, because if he is found to be insane, Roderick will be spared the death penalty; if it can be proved that he was in full possession of his mental faculties he will hang.

Right from the start, the author gives us a very clear indication that this will not be a straightforward case with a selection of witness statements that variously describe Roddy as a wicked boy, an amenable and polite young man and a strange loner.  Then comes what we would imagine to be the most valuable testimony: that of the murderer himself.  Roddy’s story, as he tells it, is quite a sorrowful one.  Following the death of his mother his already morose father becomes even more emotionally inaccessible, alternating between brooding gloom and flashes of violent rage, ruling over his children in their tiny crofter’s cottage with an iron fist.  Life in the hamlet of Culduie is pretty insular and the prospect of pursuing a life elsewhere is practically non-existent, with the crofters’ lifestyle being passed down through the generations.  The local schoolmaster spots a sharp intellect in Roddy that is missing from his provincial classmates, but the boy is unable to imagine any future other than taking on his father’s trade.   Life goes on and the monotonous days blend into one another without major incident, until something happens that turns life in Culduie upside down for everyone: Lachlan Mackenzie becomes constable of the community.  The constable is responsible for enforcing order and maintaining standards on behalf of the laird on whose land the crofters live and work, and it’s a system that has always been regarded by the inhabitants as reasonable and fair.  Lachlan, however, is power-hungry; a combination of intimidating physical strength and a calculating mind, and the Macrae family – for various reasons that have accumulated during a lifetime of living side by side in Culduie – become the target of a vicious campaign of oppression.  When Roddy develops an attraction to Lachlan’s daughter it proves to be the final step on a steady climb towards the inevitable: the confrontation between the two men that results in the constable’s death.

There are brief but significant flashes of disquieting behaviour during Roddy’s narrative that set momentary alarm bells ringing in our minds – his eerie detachment during the mercy killing of an injured sheep, the unsettling coolness with which he listens to his sister’s suicidal thoughts – but by and large, the overwhelming feeling I was left with as this section of the book drew to a close was one of pity.  Lachlan’s bullying campaign was, I felt, an incredibly astute piece of writing in that it succeeded in stirring up genuine physical feelings of anger on my part towards the character such as I haven’t felt for a very long time.  The author pinned down with uncanny accuracy the way in which so many bullies go about their business; when Roddy and his father try to describe to a superior official the things that have been said and done to them, out of context they sound feeble and no cause for complaint at all.  Lachlan is smart enough to operate in a way that ensures his victims know precisely what is being done to them while those looking on would never see the malicious intent behind his actions.  To be brutally honest, I couldn’t wait for Roddy to kill his tormentor – until the murder itself, which I won’t spoil but which didn’t unfold in quite the way I’d imagined.  At the moment of the killing, an unanticipated shockwave of doubt explodes out of the book, and in the space of a couple of pages you’re suddenly left wondering whether your judgement has been skewed all along.

Fittingly, Roddy’s account ends as he is still standing over the body of his nemesis, and the (deliberately) jarring insertion of a glossary of Scottish dialect creates a much-needed pause as we come down from the fraught heights of intense emotion back to the detached practicality of deciphering the linguistic quirks of his testimony.  This marks the start of the second part of the novel, and a brisk change in tone as we move from a first person narrative to series of professional documents pertaining to the case.  We will hear from the doctors who examined the bodies of the murder victims, the surgeon who was called in to psychoanalyse Roddy following his arrest and finally the witnesses who took part in the trial, their words recorded in various newspapers at the time.  Not everyone I’ve spoken to has appreciated the changes in style throughout the book, with some finding the format off-putting, but I actually felt a sense of relief as I embarked on the latter half, which is more impersonal and less emotive, after the more visceral nature of Roddy’s story.

If I thought that these new points of view were going to lead to certainty and closure, however, I was wrong.  If there’s a message to be taken away from this book it’s that it is almost impossible to claim there is any such thing as absolute truth where the actions of human beings are concerned.  There are revelations in the second section that come as a shock, and cause you to start re-evaluating everything you thought you knew from Roddy’s confessional account – but is that the same as saying he was lying?  Could those making statements about him be lying too, or at least fabricating a version of events that fits in with their preconceived ideas about the people involved?  It’s quite a philosophical novel in many ways; once the author starts playing with our sense of right and wrong, truth and untruth, the questions spiral.  The conclusion I came to is that humans are not for the most part calculating liars: we genuinely believe that our interpretation of events is accurate.  We create our own life story in our head, and that’s the one to which we hold fast.  And that being the case, is it ever possible for anyone else to tell us unequivocally that we are wrong?  If a madman believes that his motives, even for the most vicious crimes, were pure, is that not true in the sense that it’s his truth?  Given all this, the idea of one man presiding as judge over another becomes ever more uncomfortable.

I think it’s fair to say I was disturbed, gripped and given an intellectual workout by this novel in equal measure.  Every now and then a book comes along that messes with your head a bit, and “His Bloody Project” is definitely one of those.  And just when you think you may have made up your mind about what has occurred, the last few lines will plant a seed of doubt in your head once more.  Hats off to the author – this novel is very special indeed, and a striking achievement.

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“The Little Red Chairs” by Edna O’Brien – review

When you start reading “The Little Red Chairs” you feel as if you’re embarking on a gentle tale of a small Irish community’s gradual enlightenment brought about by the arrival of an enigmatic stranger.  A mysterious man from the Balkans sets himself up as a spiritual healer specialising in sex therapy, and as with Joanne Harris’ “Chocolat”, the notion of an outsider subverting the traditions of an insular Catholic community causes consternation among some, and guilty curiosity among others.  Don’t be fooled.  Before Edna O’Brien is done with you, she’s going to drag you to some very dark places indeed, and the languid, almost wistful tone of the opening pages will seem a world away.

If you read the author’s brief but ominous introductory note before the story begins, you’ll get an idea of the territory this novel is going to cover.  She explains that the red chairs of the title were actually part of the 2012 twentieth anniversary commemoration of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.  Each chair, laid out along the city’s main street, represented the life of someone killed during the siege, 11541 in total.  It’s not giving too much away to say that the somewhat bizarre Eastern European gentleman who turns up in Cloonoila, Ireland, is going to open the inhabitants’ eyes to a part of history, and part of the world, that up until now seemed utterly remote and inconsequential – but the nature of his connection to the events that provoked the forlorn display of little red chairs I would never have guessed.  Before too long the past catches up with the present and life for many in Cloonoila will never be the same again; for one character in particular, Fidelma, the events that follow the stranger’s arrival will divert the course of her entire future.  When we first meet her, she is living out a hollow existence, in a marriage under strain from the age difference between herself and her much older husband, and longing for the child that has never come her way.  She’s a reserved and unassuming woman, and we pity her almost immediately as one of those sad figures whose life hasn’t turned out the way she hoped or probably deserved.  It’s all the more tragic, then, that her very vulnerability makes her the one who ends up getting involved more intimately than any other in the intrigue surrounding newcomer Vladimir.  It’s a scenario that doesn’t end well.  The story’s crisis point is an event so unbelievably horrific that I was forced to step away from the book for a while; it was truly one of the most disturbing passages I’ve ever read and it will prey on my mind for a long time to come.  However, it’s a credit to the author that she’s able to depict a scene as hideous as this and still bring the reader with her.  Horrified though I was, there was never any question in my mind as to whether I wanted to carry on.  If you do continue you will be rewarded, as for me the novel becomes richer and deeper the further it goes on.

The latter half of the book is both fascinating and exceptionally clever as it both narrows and broadens its focus at the same time.  One the one hand, the author chooses to leave many of the earlier characters behind and concentrate on Fidelma and the path her life takes as she attempts to come to terms with everything that’s happened.  On the other hand it’s at this point that the novel really embraces what turn out to be its key themes by moving the action out of the isolated town of Cloonoila to London, and thus to an infinitely wider world of people who are fighting their own battles in ways that Fidelma couldn’t have imagined.  The idea of how established communities view outsiders was hinted at in an almost whimsical way at the start of the novel, with gently comical scenes ensuing as the local priest delicately tries to address the Church’s concerns over “sex therapy” with the new arrival and a nun surreptitiously visits his massage room.  By the book’s later stages the notion of the outsider has taken on a much more serious tone, and the expanding cast of characters who flit in and out of the action open the reader’s – and Fidelma’s – eyes to what it really means to be on the fringes of society.  For some it’s about having acted in a way that contravenes society’s rules, for others it comes in the form of racial abuse, and for some it’s the isolation that comes from being thoroughly immersed in a grief and pain that no-one else can comprehend.  Most crucially, though, it’s about the people from all corners of the world who have come to London seeking a refuge from lives more terrible than most of us will ever experience.  The truth is that there are streets in every part of the globe that would more than warrant their own row of little red chairs.

I’m aware that this is starting to sound very much like an issue-led novel, and if your eyes are glazing over at the thought of an author on a soap-box for two hundred pages then let me assure you it doesn’t read that way at all.  Yes, it’s undoubtedly a very timely novel considering everything that’s been filling our news bulletins over the past several months, but it’s also an incredibly intimate examination of one woman’s trauma and her journey back to some kind of inner peace.  The author’s genius lies in this masterful balance of a broader message with minutely observed personal detail, and the quality and bravery of her writing have marked her out in my mind as a novelist I want to pursue further.  It’s not an easy read to be sure, but immensely rewarding and utterly deserving of all the plaudits it’s received.  Steel yourself – but read it.

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