Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Tuesday's Reviews - His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

It seems as though last Tuesday was about a month ago but, as it turns out, it was only 7 days. You may remember that last week's blog post was a bit of an unusual one thanks to some unexpected news. Instead of my scheduled review of the Man Booker 2016 Shortlisted His Bloody Project I spent the Tuesday review in a rather angry and sad analysis of a rejection for a job I really wanted. I've had time to come to terms with it now and, even though I'm still feeling all of those things, I'm not dwelling. I'm applying for more and trying to organise some useful shit to help me in the future. Now that I'm once again of sound-ish mind, I'm going to attempt to do what I wanted to last week. It may not have won the Man Booker Prize but His Bloody Project was a worthy, if unexpected, entry on this year's shortlist. It's my favourite entry on the shortlist... but, then again, it's the only one I've actually read.


If you've been paying attention to my recent Sunday rundowns you may have noticed that it took fucking ages for me to finish this book. I partly blame the fact that during that time I was preparing for both of my recent interviews. The other portion of blame goes to me continued book slump. It's a pain in the arse and it's here with a vengeance. Whatever the reason, it certainly wasn't any indication of the book's quality. It's an interesting read that I was desperate to pick up as soon as I heard about it. Taking the lead off the current trend for true crime, the author first recounts the tale of how he "found" a pile of documents pertaining to the trial of one of his relatives. What we have is a bizarre form of psychological crime thriller where, instead of witnessing a crime, the reader must put together the pieces of information laid before them to understand why three murders were committed.

The story is set in a remote village in rural Scotland in the late 1800s. The story is told through witness accounts, court transcripts and the memoir written as the guilty party awaited his trial. As the book's subtitle states, it is a collection of Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, a 17 year old crofter who confessed to the murder of three of his neighbours. The main chunk of the book follows Roderick's own version of the events that lead him to enter the house of Lachlan Mackenzie one morning and kill him, his daughter, and his infant son. This account if further complicated by the medical examinations of the bodies, several witness statements from Roddy's neighbours, and an evaluation of a top prison doctor. The mixed narratives all weave a complex web the reader must continue to untangle once they have run out of pages. It's a captivating read that will keep you guessing for as along as you let it.

One of the novel's greatest strengths lies in its historical setting. The novel presents a rich portrait of life in a 19th century crofting community and about legal proceedings from the time. The preamble that leads up to Roddy's description of the murder presents a fascinating relationship between the poor members of the community tirelessly working for their unseen laird and living their lives according to their rigid faith. The murder is placed in a context of a stoic acceptance that bad things will happen no matter what. The community is shown to be at the mercy of so many powerful agencies that they no longer have control of their own destinies. They are victims of the circumstance and must bow down to those with any amount of power. And, as seen through Lachlan Mackenzie's actions, when certain people gain power they find a perverse pleasure in torturing those below them.

His Bloody Project really is a fascinating read that really places the reader in the heart of the story. The historic aspects have a very authentic feel about them and the handy glossary helps overcome any potential language barriers beautifully. Despite the fact that we know from the outset that Roddy was guilty of the three murders, the novel continues to be surprising. It is also weirdly funny in a very The League of Gentlemen kind of way. It is an interesting way to present a crime novel and, instead of leading us to a conclusion in the traditional sense, Macrae Burnet asks the reader to consider the evidence before them and consider the psychological issues surrounding each individual.

Coming from a fairly new author and a small Scottish publishing house, His Bloody Project was always an unlikely and unusual addition to the Man Booker Shortlist, even before you take into account the prize's apparent dislike of the crime genre. Plus, there is part of me that still feels like the attempt to portray the events as real is a tad too gimmicky for my liking. However, I can't deny that I loved every moment of reading it and I think Macrae Burnet did a remarkable job of presenting the ambiguous natures of criminal proceedings. It deserves every second of its increased popularity since the nominations were announced and, despite not winning the actual title, it is a winner on so many more levels.

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