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.

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