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Monday 17 October 2016
Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project
Waterstones had a table with Booker Prize Shortlist books and I bought this one for no other reason than that it has achieved publicity because it was brought out by a small publisher based in Scotland rather than thwacked on the table under some imprint of an international conglomerate media company - the sort of company which reckons it ought to be able to stitch up the Booker any time (look at some of the past winners!)
I read the 280 pages in a day, mostly without difficulty once I had got past the opening difficulty. Within a minute of beginning to read, I was thinking Pierre Riviere - the real-life 19th century French rural murderer who wrote a Memoir of his own deeds (I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother ... and wishing to make known the motives etc). It's true that Burnet briefly acknowledges the book at the end of a list (p 281), but the debt to Michel Foucault's work goes quite deep since the structure of this book in effect mirrors Foucault's presentation of the dossier on the Riviere case. I think that may cause a problem for the Booker jury. Macrae has had a lot of his work done for him.
But I got past this. The best part of the book is undoubtedly The Account of Roderick Macrae which takes up 137 pages of the 280 - so, a half. Here the demand on the author is that he proceed confidently in his narrator's voice and avoid the main pitfalls of such writing, which are anachronism and pastiche. Burnet opts for a fairly neutral prose which does not constantly try to evoke 19th century rural Scotland - he makes do with a small specialised vocabulary to give period flavour and provides a Glossary to it - and he avoids obvious anachronism. Once he uses "hobby" where I would have thought "pastime" and no doubt there are others like that but nothing dreadful.
The main problem (and this one also for the Booker jury) is that he does not quite bring off the uncertainty he creates around Macrae's motivation, nor does that uncertainty map straightforwardly onto the official theme of criminal insanity. In brief, Macrae committed three murders, one of them also involving a violent sexual assault - the medical evidence at pages 156 - 57 - on a girl (or the body of a dead girl) who has spurned him. That is nowhere mentioned in his own Account, which is to that extent either dishonest or obscured by an insane degree of denial. Nor does this possible motivation drive the narrative of the Trial until one witness alights on the possibility. There is a more complex narrative implied than the surface one but though it is fairly constantly hinted at it doesn't really get structured enough to give us a chance to engage with it.