“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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And the winner is…

Do you remember which novel won the last Man Booker Prize?  Do you care which novel won the last Man Booker Prize?  Are literary awards a significant feature on your reading radar or do they pass you by unnoticed?  They’re a big deal for many in the book world to be sure; they’re also pretty much guaranteed to divide opinion.

I remember many years ago, when I was first embarking on the reading journey of my adult life, I bought a box set of Booker Prize winners.  I was incredibly excited by this purchase; it felt as if someone had placed in my hands the literary foundation from which all future knowledge and love of books would grow.  So I started reading.  One or two I quite enjoyed.  One I abandoned after a couple of chapters in a state of utter bewilderment.  Most of them I finished, but with a feeling that they were definitely languishing near the lower end of the enjoyment scale.  I was disappointed.  In all honesty that experience put me off literary prizes for quite a while, purely because it sparked an ongoing assumption that such awards were reserved for the dry, the joyless and the inaccessible.  I no longer believe that’s true, having read a few prize-winners I thought were genuinely phenomenal; the difference is that today I’m guided much more by what I think I’ll enjoy than whether it has a literary award sticker on the cover.

Do I think that book prizes are of any real importance?  100% yes.  I’ve worked in the book trade for thirteen years, and the enormous spike in interest that follows a novel’s victory is remarkable.  Seeing first-hand how many people are inspired to pick up a book as a result of a prize’s publicity is truly heartening.  Whether those people chose to read that novel because it held a particular appeal for them or whether they were simply curious to read an award winner doesn’t matter – to have thousands of people taking part in what is essentially a mass reading event is a wonderful thing.  Maybe some have been inspired to start reading by a prize-winning book, and that’s fantastic too.  If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a book-lover, so I’m sure you’ll share my view that any initiative or event that keeps people reading and ensures that books stay at the forefront of our cultural landscape is to be celebrated.  Literary prizes aren’t the only way of achieving that to be sure, but they have their part to play.

There will always be a certain amount of controversy surrounding the workings of the prizes themselves.  Are the right people judging them?  Are they choosing shortlists and winners for the right reasons?  Indeed, what are the right reasons – is it about accessibility or literary merit, and are the two mutually exclusive?  I guess it’s impossible for an award that judges any kind of artistic endeavour to pass without vociferous differences of opinion; it’s the nature of the beast, the nature of art.  But literary prizes are here to stay, and I for one am very grateful for that.

So what about the prize-winners I loved and loathed?  The worst has to be “A Confederacy of Dunces”, regarded as a modern classic I know but sadly not a classic for me!  And the best…well, this is a bit of a trickier one.  My two candidates are recent novels: “All the light we cannot see”, which won this year’s Pulitzer (and about which you can hear me raving elsewhere on the blog!) and “The Luminaries”, awarded the Man Booker a couple of years ago.  After careful consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t possibly pick a winner.  Pitting two such different books against each other?  I think I’d best leave that judgement to the experts…