Book Review: His Bloody Project

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s successful second novel, short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and sub-titled ‘Documents relating to the case of Roderick McRae’, sees, like The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, the author taking another creative approach to the structure of the modern novel. Here, Burnet appears essentially as an editor, curating a collection of documents about three murders taking place in the north-west Scotland village of Culduie. The murderer – Roderick (Roddy) McRae – is not in doubt, but the question of whether he was responsible mentally for his actions and, indeed, the motives for them are the major themes of the novel as Burnet – who ostensibly came across the documents while researching some family history in Applecross – explores the approach taken by the courts to criminal insanity in Scotland in the late nineteenth century.

Along the way, Burnet’s subject matter covers the vicissitudes of day-to-day life in a small crofting community in post-Clearances Scotland, class-based attitudes to crofting and crofters, and the state of gender relations in the sexist, patriarchal societies of the time in which women and girls – inside such communities in addition to the way in which women were frequently observed by outsiders – lived shockingly targeted, highly vulnerable and sexualised lives. Additionally, the role of outsiders in a small community is also well-explored with the McRaes’ stock – it is likely, although this is never discussed in the novel, that they are of traveller/Roma origin – featuring heavily in the development of Roddy McRae’s character.

The novel has been well-researched and the period detail – despite the author’s understandable confession that he is a novelist and not a social historian – rings heavily true. The role of, and attitudes towards, the Gáidhlig language is well explored. The blurring of fact and fiction – there were no such murders by a McRae in north-west Scotland at this time, although Culduie certainly exists, and pretty much on the plan sketched out in the book (indeed, the owners of a B&B in the village have gone to some lengths to explain the connections) and several of the characters appearing in the novel are real-life ones – is, aided by the documentary structure of the novel, done to such good effect that it is likely to leave some readers confused and looking for hard evidence to support the conclusions that they draw. That, by the way, is not a bad thing.

This is a good novel, but it’s not a great one. The reporters and journalists in the ‘trial’ section of the novel are stereotyped in the interest of a few cheap (though funny…) jokes. More seriously, John McRae – Roddy’s father – is weakly drawn: suitably withdrawn and subject to laconic pronouncements when called upon, his religious life, as an elder in the kirk, is almost completely ignored: seemingly, a major omission given the theme. Providence – divine intervention – features strongly as the crofters look for ways to explain and rationalise their lack of control over the lives and, here, the role of the Church in the service of the interests of the landed gentry might have been better explored. Neither is this in other respects – given the subject matter – the radical novel it might have been since Burnet again pulls his punches on the key point of the story, here leaving the reader to draw conclusions (indeed, to write his or her own novel) around the several various, and extremely important, loose ends left hanging. Tying some of those up, without compromising the period detail, might well have made for a more impactful novel on the life and struggle of crofters after the end of the Clearances but for whom land ownership remained an unresolved question (indeed for whom it would continue to be unresolved until some forty years later than the period covered here, after the desperate, but determinedly focused, actions of the Vatersay Raiders saw the first approaches to land reform for crofters). It is, perhaps, asking a lot of a young author on his second book to write such a novel, but it’s one that does need to be written (and for which, I might add, there would be a considerable audience for a Scottish publishing house like Saraband).

And just what is it that Burnet has against teachers? As in The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, representatives of the teaching profession appear weak, easily bullied and unable to exercise much authority.

Nevertheless, Burnet is capable of spinning a good yarn and his natural flair for the development of very solid, very credible characters – in just a few sentences in the sections dealing with the community’s resolution of the loss of Lachlan McKenzie’s ram, as well as at the Gathering in Applecross, the reader is left in no doubt as to what kind of man McKenzie was. Additionally, Burnet slyly manages to pack in a few choice words at the close around the dangers of social media and – although this pre-dates the publication – the way in which false stories were manufactured and spread in the nineteenth century which has a strongly topical flavour following the US presidential election. I’ll certainly buy the next one although again, as with The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I’ll next be looking for a much stronger voice from the author himself, with a resolution of the issues presented rather than the reader being left to interpret (or even invent) resolutions against the backcloth that the author has so skilfully developed.

*This is not a post about Nigel Farage although, given political developments this week, I am reserving it for possible future use in this respect.

Amazing what can crop up in your photos…

Thursday last week was a beautiful day on the islands: calm, with winds dropping to the single digits mph from the 40/50+ they’d been for much of the previous seven days and with cloudless, spring-like blue skies.

In short, a good day for travelling – and good timing, too; as we’d long planned a trip off-island via the Lochmaddy-Uig ferry.

Seeing the colour of the skies – and the Cuillin ridge on Sky, visible from our house for the first time in weeks of mist and low cloud cover – I made sure my camera (a simple Canon compact) was with me in the front of the car and, coming off the ferry (a first time for me on the MV Hebridean Isles, I started snapping away through the windscreen as we came down through Skye and especially as the Cuillin Ridge came into view. On my second effort, I was aware of two lapwings that rose from the left, startled, across the road and my field of view just as I pressed the shutter release (I know: they probably don’t still call them that). I thought little of it – lapwings are easily disturbed – and, on checking that my view of the total width of the Black Cuillins had indeed been photobombed by a lapwing, nearly deleted it immediately. It’s not, in any case, a great photo (enhancing (as I have done below) via software easily available over the internet improves somewhat the original over-exposure of the ridge and restores a little of the blue sky, although I’ve lost quite a bit in straightening the horizon line). Further down the road, once I’d got my focusing sorted out, I have much better snaps – although that is all they are, given the circumstances – albeit of the Red Cuillins, not the Black ones.

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And yet, and yet. Look a bit closer. What’s the bird in the middle of the photo? One of the disturbed lapwings is clear enough, in the foreground, but that bird top centre, a little further distant. Is that ‘fingers’ visible on the end of its brown, and very broad, right wing, or a simple blur of movement as the bird changes direction? Is that an interesting-looking tail arrangement, or a mistake in the colours given the limits of the photograph being taken? Something in any way potentially predatory, looking to cut off the lapwing’s exit right? Zooming close in on the bird in question, gives me this, inevitably poor quality, blurred shot:

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Clearly it is a raptor which has raised the lapwings – and a major one, judging by what seems to be a fearsome hooter. Look at the power in those shoulders. My first thought was a white-tailed eagle (which I have seen, memorably, on Skye before, in a boat trip out of Portree harbour a little way south into the Sound of Raasay). The wings are not big or broad enough for a white-tailed, however – but it is most certainly a golden eagle: most specifically, a juvenile one: the white tail tipped with black feathers gives it away. My first, confirmed, sighting of a goldie, too: and in what dramatic circumstances – the bird seems to be clearly arching in towards the second, slower of the two lapwing(s) although whether they or something else is the target of the hunt is uncertain. I (and the passengers in the other drivers in the convoy of cars coming down Skye from Uig) seem to have been an unwitting, uninvited witness to a strike by one of the UK nature’s finest, and perhaps most feared, killing machines.

Or is it my sighting? Yes, it is absolutely a golden eagle (unless anyone with better knowledge can correct me!). But does a picture of one – a moment in and out of time – really count as a sighting? Especially one in which the bird in question features as a mistake, and from the safe, sealed environment of the inside of a car? What makes my picture of the young goldie any different from one I’ve seen in a book or on the RSPB website? Yes, I took the picture – but I didn’t mean actually to take a picture of a golden eagle. And – to confess the key point in my philosophical ramble – I can’t recall whether I actually saw it live: I’ve only seen it on my photo. Yes, dear reader, I took a picture of a golden eagle without actually seeing one. What happened after its swoop – the key part in its hunger chase – I didn’t catch: my attention was all on the lapwing(s) with the cheek to photobomb my shot of the Cuillin Ridge, which quickly went out of sight on the moorland to the right and behind as the car continued to roll forwards. Does an image of a bird, unseen in the original, really count as a sighting in these circumstances? The lapwing is a striking and exotic enough bird but not only is it a bit commonplace (red listed it may be but, in the Hebrides, they’re really two-a-penny), in these particular circumstances, sighting a lapwing is the very definition of anti-climax.

I think my quest for a confirmed golden eagle sighting might well have to continue – even if I could scarcely have got closer this time. But it does demonstrate the importance of paying attention; seeing the full picture and not losing focus in the frustrations of a moment apparently lost but which, when afforded the opportunity of such hindsight, had the makings of something much, much better.

Book Review: The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau

Like probably a lot of readers, I picked this up fairly recently in the wake of Graeme Macrae Burnet‘s second novel – His Bloody Project – being shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize (and which has just now worked its way to the top of my reading pile). And absolutely fair play to his publisher – Saraband, a tiny but brilliantly creative Scottish publishing house (check out the video to support part of the backstory of this first novel) – for using the Booker to add a bit more juice to an earlier novel.

Bedeau purports to be the author’s translation of a French cult classic by one Raymond Brunet (see what he did there?): one that has been effective enough to confuse more than a few poor souls. It is, of course, a novel, with the ‘translation’ constituting an elaborate structual device whose purpose is conjectural but which seems to have been to support what is arguably the book’s main purpose. John Fowles of course deployed similar structural devices in several of his works.

The novel itself need not detain us too long: it is, in truth, a rather slight story with the disappearance of Ms. Bedeau being simply a MacGuffin on which to hang a study of two men – one being a detective; the other a social misfit who may know something about the disappearance but who has a complex psychological history – located in smalltown France (the very real town of Saint-Louis, close to Strasbourg). Having himself spent some time living in France, Burnet’s observations are well-informed and the novel’s keen sense of atmosphere and place, particularly around the role of food and drink in French society, is likely to owe significantly to his experience. The tale is assured and well-told, with chapters consumed by your reviewer at a rapid pace and unfolding in a well-described timeframe, partly in the current and partly in flashback for both the main protagonists; and there is an appreciable level of sly humour surrounding the author’s observations. And yet ultimately the author pulls his punches on the main plot; sub-plots are left undeveloped and, in one case, completely hanging; and the key to the denouement of the main plot appears trivial and would, thus, be unsatisfactory in a more major work.

It is interesting to learn (from the author’s profile page on the Saraband website) that Burnet is returning to his detective – Inspector Georges Gorski – in his next novel, since this gives us the key to Bedeau‘s main purpose: it is a homage to Georges Simenon, the French writer whose Inspector Maigret books are modern classics and who (alongside other European crime novels) is a declared major influence on Burnet as an author. It is in this novel-as-homage that we might view some of its weaknesses (weak and poorly developed female caricatures; bad sex scenes; a level of misogyny in describing the women characters and one instance of casual racism towards the book’s end): this is not Burnet’s voice, necessarily, but that of the purported author he is translating and whose roman fits into a genre of cheap, and rather dated, French detective novels which are themselves Simenon pastiches. Consequently, we should probably cut Burnet a little slack on such weaknesses: in this reading, this novel of his is only partly his own and the weaknesses may stem, more or less built-in, from the purpose of the novel-as-homage rather than from the mind and the pen of Burnet as himself. It will thus be interesting to see how Gorski features next, what device Burnet will use to support his re-appearance and how much of Burnet’s own voice, as opposed to him acting as a channel for forgotten (and minor) French authors, is contained in that work.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward immensely to hearing a little more of Burnet’s own voice sans the influence of French crime novelists in His Bloody Project.

IndyRef 2 becomes a reality

Nicola Sturgeon made the call this morning for a decision at the Scottish Parliament ‘next week’ to open discussions with the UK government on a new referendum on independence for Scotland.

Following the recent Ipsos MORI opinion poll putting support for (and against) independence at 50:50, such a move was likely on the basis that the largest party in the Scottish Parliament believes in independence and whose Green partners believe likewise. The SNP does not have a majority of the 129 Scottish MSPs but, with the support of the Greens, Parliament will approve the motion seeking such authority when put to it next week.

I’ve stated before – and this blog’s comments on Brexit highlight passim – that I’m not instinctively in favour of any approach to a country’s affairs rooted in the national as opposed to the international. I can’t see myself voting next time in any referendum any differently to the last one – although it does depend significantly on the question that is put to me in the voting booth. The difference this time around is the context of Brexit which is leading – apparently inexorably – to the break-up of the UK, as Ian Dunt successfully argues. He’s not right in everything (I am a Yugo-nostalgist, but it can’t be only me to notice that this is clearly not the first ‘active dismemberment of a country against itself’). More particularly, I don’t blame those voting ‘Leave’ last June for the break-up of the UK – this is, as Dunt also points out, quite clearly the fault of Theresa May and those others backing a hard Brexit. Arrogance, an anti-consultative tendency and a totally un-nuanced approach to the questions posed by the referendum – even to the point of government ministers claiming that parliament should reject the opportunity re-given it by the Lords to maximise its role in the process (EDIT: as indeed, and shamefully, happened tonight) – were always likely (and with evident justification) to see a Scottish government feeling its active marginalisation to kick back. You would expect that of any government in an active, engaged democracy and the Scottish Government is right to raise the question as it has done. The vote to leave the EU changes everything.

Consequently, I won’t – yet – be joining any ‘Together Stronger’ campaign. Indeed, one may not be necessary should Theresa May take this signal from Nicola Sturgeon for the final warning that it is, and change tack on the hard Brexit that she is relentlessly pursuing. David Allan Green in the FT notes the constitutional connections between Brexit and future of the UK; while it appears clear that the UK government has yet to learn the importance of listening to the priorities of the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Government, as Stephen Tierney also argues. I’m not holding out any hopes of that, however: and, indeed, the early signs are not good with May having already criticised the move as ‘deeply regrettable’: a sign that she has surely missed, or otherwise ignored, the signal entirely.

Meanwhile, the dark days for those who believe in a UK where resources are pooled and shared for the greater good of all – as much as for those who believe similarly on a pan-European scale – just got that little bit darker.

CD review: Love and Hate

I’m coming a little late to this one, Michael Kiwanuka’s second CD, released in July 2016, being a present (thanks, Tracy!) to which I’ve only now got around. Nevertheless, this was quite a timely listen since Kiwanuka has been sitting in on a Sunday afternoon during February on 6Music for Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (some episodes still available for listening).

A look at the playlists for the shows reveals a lot about the influences on Kiwanuka at this point, alongside the playlists he has also put together on iTunes (apparently…) in support of his 2017 Brits award nominations (for male artist and for album of the year); and on his own Spotify account (subscription required). (Though listening on the radio is always better, right?) Alongside the well-known influential figures from soul and jazz (sadly, most of them dead), there are some surprises too, revealing Kiwanuka, evidently a shy and even introspective man (there’s little of himself on his website or on his Twitter feed – and fair enough for all that, although artists are by definition public figures and, perhaps, need to give a little of themselves if their work is to be understood), to be something of a rocker, too (something which becomes also clear on the CD, which heavily features blues guitars and the influence of Ernie Isley (‘Summer Breeze’)).

On to the CD, and the most immediately obvious reference points vocally are Richie Havens and Ted Hawkins, but, primarily, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ in both the themes of the songs (spiritualism, racism and agonised pain at the state of the world) but also in the over-riding ethos of orchestral soul drawn from the shimmering, soaring strings that underpin the key moments in the majority of the songs, in the chorus of voices providing backing for them and in the sudden key, and mood, shifts in the melodies within them. Extraordinarily tough footsteps to follow, perhaps (although, alongside the utterly sheer brilliance of some of its songs, it has to be said that ‘What’s Going On?’ also contains moments of unlistenable psychedelic filler: it’s an album of great songs, but it’s not a great album). Nevertheless, Kiwanuka manages successfully to tread on similar ground while not plummeting as many of the depths – a fact betraying, despite his apparent introspective nature, a level of confidence about his abilities and in the strength of his songs.

After a period of time-out to re-appraise himself and his music, this makes a bold statement. The otherwise somewhat overblown review of ‘Love and Hate’ in The Guardian points to the inner belief involved in putting a ten minute track (‘Cold Little Heart’) as the first song on the album, with Kiwanuka’s own vocal (though of course his voice is heard also in his guitar…) heard for the first time only after nearly five minutes. This is perceptive in some respects, although it’s also possible to see this as an attempt to put off the moment of saying something as long as possible. The moment he does is not only joyous but joyously cathartic: against the stirring strings, the repeated intonations of his backing singers and in his bluesy guitar in that first five minutes, it’s also clearly possible to see this as a man re-awakening, revitalising, drawing strength from the voices that surround him, overcoming his doubts and, finally sucking in air, gathering himself to say what it is he has to say.

Which brings us to his vocal (and his lyrics): cracked and pained, doubtful and unforgiving of himself, and cuttingly honest, but nevertheless capable of positive and even upbeat moments, Kiwanuka’s is finely tuned to his own, deeply personal observations and experiences. If the predominant feel of ‘Love and Hate’ is downbeat, geared towards a Sunday afternoon and a soul searching for answers even in the first, let alone from the second, half of 2016, Kiwanuka is clear that, while we need to look for sources of strength within ourselves, we can’t do this by ourselves: that we have to walk with each other, not just in someone else’s shoes but alongside them.

Key songs: the title track; and ‘Cold Little Heart’ – that gorgeous, raw opener. In fact, if you don’t like that, simply move along – there’s nothing else to see here. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a thing of great beauty and emotional power. And this is a great album.