Sunday, September 25, 2016

Reading Notes: His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project, by Graeme McCrae Burnet, is one of six books shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and is currently the second-favourite in predictions and odds for the gong (the lead is held by Deborah Levy's Hot Milk). Interestingly, it is by far the best-selling of the shortlisted titles, with sales of the other titles a third to a half less. I think I might have an idea of why that is.

His Bloody Project was described this week by the Guardian's Libby Brooks as "fiendishly readable", and I think that's as good a way as any to open a discussion of this text.

Burnet's book is indeed an easy, engrossing, and captivating read - I bought it on my Kindle at 4pm yesterday and finished it just after lunch today, and I did sleep soundly and long in the middle of that, so it was not a taxing read by any stretch. This is actually more of a feat than it sounds when you consider that the book, set in a remote mid-19th century Scottish Highlands community, purports to be actual historical documents of the time. (It isn't, of course - this is fictional history, akin to, but not as detailed or rich as, the back story in AS Byatt's seminal work, Possession).

What Burnet gets absolutely, shiningly right is his language choices. There's no dialect or attempt to render 19th century speech patterns - itself a crashingly difficult thing to get right and a fast way to alienate readers who aren't either dedicated, language nerds, or being paid to plough through (past Booker nominees Umbrella and The Wake, I'm looking at YOU). 19th century styles can occasionally be done well by modern authors - Eleanor Catton pulled it off in The Luminaries quite recently - but even then, such texts tend to be dense, hard going. His Bloody Project is, by comparison, deft, light, deceptively simple; it draws the reader along from the start.

Instead of trying to invoke a sense of historicity through dialect and language stylism, Burnet uses modern speech conventions but within a sociocultural construct relevant to the times. In this respect, the book reminded me very much of Jim Crace's Harvest, which was also, perhaps not coincidentally, a gripping and successful rendition of poor agricultural communities under severe stress because of abuse of power.

Describing His Bloody Project, or assigning it a genre at least, is a bit tricky in some ways. It's a historical novel - sort of. It's a psychothriller - in a way. It's a true-crime-style fiction - yes, and yet ... For a plot that moves in a pretty straight line, it's surprisingly hard to classify, just as its central subject, Roderick (Roddy) McCrae, is hard to really despite his first-person account comprising about half of the total book.

The story is this: there is a small, poor crofting village in 19th century Highlands, where live 9 families. One family is the McCraes (known as the "Black McCraes") - at the start of the book this comprises father John, daughter Jetta, son Roddy, and two unnamed twin toddlers. The mother of the family, Una, is revealed to have died in childbirth some 18 months earlier, and the family is sunk in gloom as a result.

Other families in the village include the kindly, prosperous Murchinsons (or "Smokes"), and the clever, bullying McKenzies. One of the three McKenzie households is headed by the massive, malicious Lachlan McKenzie ("Lachlan Broad"). Lachlan Broad has a spite against John McCrae and his household; it is implied, but not stated, that this may relate to some bad blood dating from the lifetime of the dead McCrae mother, Una. He is the Big Man in Town and when he becomes the village constable, he uses his authority to subtly and overtly persecute the McCraes, culminating in issuing them with an eviction notice.

The day after the eviction notice is served, 17-year-old Roddy picks up an agricultural tool, exchanges smalltalk with his neighbour Carmina Smoke, then goes to the McKenzie house, kills 15 year old daughter of the house Flora, 3 year old toddler Donald, and, finally, Lachlan McKenzie himself. Roddy then calmly gives himself up to the law. The day after, his older sister Jetta is found hanged (suicide) in the barn.

If the plot sounds straightforward, that is both accurate and misleading at the same time. True-crime novels (which this is mimicking) are often whodunnits, interrogating evidence and inconsistencies in accounts in hope of proving an accused either did or didn't commit the crime. But in His Bloody Project, Burnet is following in the path of the far more interesting and compelling kind of historical true crime novel - the whydunnit. Like Hannah Kent's marvellous Burial Rites and Margaret Attwood's classic Alias Grace, Burnet's book delves into the deepest and least understood motives of the human heart, and poses some profound questions about how we understand character, motivation and morality.

The structure of the book is centred around Roddy's first-person account, written in prison at the behest of his legal counsel, followed by purported notes from examining psychiatrists, court reports, and newspaper articles. The central question is, as you would expect, whether or not the 17-year-old killer is sane and therefore able to be convicted of murder and hanged. The narrative teases the question unmercifully, but never unskillfully; even in Roddy's own words, there are hints of strangeness, of absence of normal reactions, that can be interpreted as consistent with a personality disorder at least, and this is emphasised much more in the neighbours' trial testimonies.

Indeed, one of the real interests in the book is how different Roddy looks as seen through other eyes as opposed to the self-perception he chooses to present in his narrative. That it IS a choice, and possibly quite a calculated one, is emphasised by the things he leaves out (which emerge from others' testimony). While Roddy does avert, albeit via sideways references, to the strong element of sexual coercion and power running through the text (especially in his account of his sister Jetta's probably-coerced liaison with Lachlan Broad, which led to her pregnancy and then suicide), it's in the accounts of others that Roddy's own sexual issues are highlighted, for instance. Carmina Smoke's account of Roddy's Peeping-Tom and exhibitionist behaviours are all the more disturbing for the fact that she discloses them reluctantly; a kind and forebearing person, she clearly doesn't want to worsen Roddy's case.

The story, though, is not just about the pathology of one person. It's also about the effects of poverty, injustice and oppression on whole communities, and whether or not a rotten system based on arbitrary authority can ever be redeemed. There are those who see Roddy's act as not personal but political - and if ever there was to be a revolution in the crofts, someone like Lachlan Broad would definitely have been first against the wall.

To me, though, Roddy's violence is so entwined with every aspect of his life that it's impossible to parse it effectively. He's a beaten, terrified, furious, rejected, probably sociopathic and certainly unstable, boy. He kills horrifically, and in two out of three cases, completely inexcusably. (Killing a three-year-old so they won't cry out is an appalling act, and Roddy's matter-of-fact commission of it, and total lack of remorse or understanding why it was so reviled, is telling). Was he a murderer, in the sense of possessing the necessary mens rea (state of mind) to understand that what he was doing was wrong? The fact that after having read the book with rapt attention, I can still say I honestly don't know, is testament to the power and skill of this extremely good novel.

Overall? 8.5/10. Would be happy to see this one win the Booker, although I think it will get pipped by the Levy book.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Newport Lakes

Today was another nice spring day sandwiched between chilly wet ones.

We took advantage of it this time to go for a picnic and walk at Newport Lakes, followed by ice creams in Williamstown. (Ice creams from The Ice Cream Shoppe are always and ever a holiday treat - they even have gluten free waffle cones, which makes me just so happy!)

There is much to do and see at Newport Lakes. For a place that was once a quarry and later a rubbish tip, Newport Lakes has developed into a spot of great beauty and tranquillity - a habitat for many species and a lovely place to spend time for the community.

After picnicking and kicking balls around for a an hour or so in the area near the playground, we went for a leisurely walk around the circuit of the lake, spotting animals and birds everywhere. The kids had bubble wands that added a bit of sparkle to the occasion.

They particularly enjoyed the antics of the many waterbirds, who clearly are a bit too used to having humans provide an illicit supplement to their diets and followed our progress along with great interest. Spotting insects, lizards and other birds was also fun.

The Lakes were not at all busy - I suspect because the day started off wavering with cloud, which might have given some people pause. In the end, though, it was a gorgeous sunny spring day, and we were fortunate to be able to enjoy it together in such a lovely place.

Some school holidays we do big things or go exciting faraway places. Other holidays, a bunch of days doing relaxing stuff close to, or even at, home, are what makes the holiday great. So far, this spring break is being one of the latter, and that is more than OK.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

School Holidays Day 1: Dog Beach

Day 1 of the spring school holidays - the first decent, non-raining day in almost 2 weeks. Taking the dog to the dog beach just seemed like the thing to do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Man Booker 2016: Shortlist time

The Man Booker shortlist for 2016 out. For the first year since 2011, I have neither the time nor, frankly, the interest, to commit to a reading challenge to cover the whole list (as I am no longer writing for the ezine that used to commission pieces on the Booker list, I also have less incentive to do so). Nonetheless, I have some general observations about the shortlist to make.

The six books listed are:
  • Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
  • Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
  • Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
  • David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
  • Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)
His Bloody Project, which is on my TBR pile, surprised many people by making it up from the longlist, as did the Deborah Levy and that book about modern masculinity (All That Man Is) that I managed 7 pages of before abandoning. I was personally a bit disappointed that the beautiful My Name is Lucy Barton didn't make the cut from the longlist - review of that one coming soon, when I get time! - but it is ever thus with the Man Booker; books about intimate lives, especially women's lives, aren't deemed important enough to be in the running for the gong.

So what have we got overall?

It's even-stevens on gender lines - 3 men, 3 women - but mightily skewed towards the transatlantic Anglophone hegemony. There are two USians, a Canadian, two English writers and a Scot in the mix, but no-one from anywhere else in the Commonwealth or indeed the English-speaking world. No representation from Africa, India, the Antipodes, the Caribbean, or Asia this year, at all. This is, you may recall, pretty much exactly what many predicted would happen when the Booker was opened up to the USians.

Thematically, it's a mixed bunch. His Bloody Project is a fictionalised historical "portrait of a murderer", which, on description, looks like it's drawing on influences both from the made-up history school of writing (exampled by AS Byatt in Possession) and the recent fascination with telling the inner story of horrific historical crimes (Hannah Kent's Burial Rites springs to mind).

The Sellout sounds like it could either be very good or very awful, but I approve of the fact that it *is* a risky plot - there is nothing cookie-cutter about the ideas it's grappling with. I have only skimmed a couple of reviews, but any book that takes on small town wastelands, civil rights, slavery, sociology, bigotry and the rewiring of societies through revolution, all set in Southern California, has to get at least respect for trying.

All That Man Is is allegedly about masculinity, told through the lives of nine men. I did not like the start and am not particularly interested in the theme, so I won't pursue this one.

Hot Milk is apparently about the mother-daughter relationship, but as Levy is one of my least-favourite contemporary authors, I will never know, cos this one is not on my horizon either.

Eileen sounds like it might have legs too (albeit a bit derivative), constructing a Hitchcockian noir crime plot out of a dispirited, downtrodden young woman's encounter with a charismatic co-worker who draws her into a folie a deux type scenario.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about the story of the Cultural Revolution in China and the years following that lead to 1989 and Tiananmen Square, told through the memories of a refugee who fled China and came to Canada. It sounds interesting, and possibly worthy (although let's hope not too much).

So common themes do not seem abundant in this crop. There are two crime-ish ones, one political / social / historical one, a relationship one, one about men, and one (The Sellout) that's hard to classify without reading it. (I think I am sufficiently intrigued to get hold of it, actually). I do note, with some jadedness, that books about *men's* lives are apparently important enough to be contenders, whereas a book like Lucy Barton that so beautifully examines *women's* lives are not.

It's not the best or bravest Booker shortlist I've ever seen, but there are at least three that look worth the trouble, so we'll see...

Saturday, September 10, 2016


"What do you want to do do now?"

She pauses. "Maybe ... we could pick oranges off the tree? To make orange juice."

Our once-tiny orange tree is now an absurdity of year-round fecundity; we can't possibly keep up with its production, even with giving away bags and bags of little, tart oranges.

I say, "That sounds like a good plan. Come on, get your shoes on, we'll go out".

Plucking low-lying fruit, she squeals with delight as she spots an enormous grandmother orange, nestled squat as a toad, hiding inside the deeps of the tree.

"Look! Look! They never get that big! Can you reach it...?"

It takes some maneuvering and a scratched hand, but I eventually work it free. She clutches it to her chest, beaming.

"Will it have way more juice than the smaller ones?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe not; it might be a bit dried out in the middle. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean juicier."

She thinks about this. "So we'll just have to see when we squeeze it."

I nod. "That's the only way to really tell."

Later, inside, we set up the juicing station. "This is like what we're doing at school," she says, slicing inexpertly through the first orange; I catch my breath, watching the knife blade waver.

"Are you doing things with oranges?" I say, steadying her hand. She shakes her head.

"No, we're studying how things change, when things happen to them. Like how water turns into ice when it gets really cold. Or how eggs go all rubber when you soak them in the vinegar."

"Transmutation," I murmur, and she half-shrugs, a common response to conversation she finds impenetrable. She's unlike her sisters, who would question every word, would want to know now; this child is content for understanding to grow like the young wattle outside the door, every season a new flush of branch and bud.

She pushes the first orange down on the steel juicer, concentration furrowing her face.

"Can you take pictures? Of what it was before and what we make it into? So I can show the class, at school."

"Of course," I say, pulling out the phone. "And what will you say about it?"

She picks up the large orange, and regards it thoughtfully. As suspected, it is dessicated inside, almost entirely dry; exhausted, spent, grown beyond its own capacity to sustain.

"I will say that it takes a lot of oranges to make a cup of juice," she says. "And that big oranges might be hollow inside."

"They might," I agree, helping her squeeze the last of the juice from the small, fluid ball in her hand. "Sometimes bigger is not a good thing."

"Sometimes things aren't what they look like," she says, and I have one of the moments of clarity that generally arrive from the juxtaposition of very simple and very layered utterances from the mouths of ... well, perhaps not babes. She's seven now; old enough for knowing, old enough to begin to knit together her own meanings.

Then: "Can I have a little bit of sugar in it?" and she's off, leaving a citrus-drenched bench and a pile of orange skins in her wake.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Being thankful

Like everyone, I suspect, I spend a reasonable amount of time feeling anxious, or aggrieved, or frustrated, or even angry, about the challenges in my life.

Parenting three growing children isn't always a walk in the park, especially at times of illness and times of transition. Running a freelance business has its ups and downs, and can create both underload and overload stressors. Not possessing a private fortune (ha!) means that money is sometimes an issue. Aging parents and chronically ill friends make me both sad and worried. Having chronic illnesses myself poses non-trivial hurdles in managing my days, weeks and months.

And all that's before you even get into the state of the world, which it's often tempting to characterise as hell meets handbasket. Every age is cataclysmic for those who live through it - my historical training tells me this, and I know it, intellectually - but the press of darkness, the weight of it, has seemed strong these past five years. No, the world wasn't a more innocent place in the 80s, but I, as a child / teen, was a more innocent person than I am in 2016, and less of the horrors penetrated my lower-middle-class bubble. (One of many ways that adulthood sucks, really).

So it can be tempting to dwell, on the hard bits and the sad bits and the infuriating bits. Tempting, but ultimately not healthy, I think. Of course the struggle is real, and shouldn't be minimised, but so is the lightness, and at the end of the day, I have so much to be thankful for.

I have three wonderful, healthy, curious, amazing daughters, whom I love dearly, and who love me and their father and each other.

I have work that I mostly enjoy, pays reasonably well, is very varied, and is highly flexible, including allowing me to work predominantly from home and do almost all the kids' school runs, school activities etc.

Further to that, as a freelancer, I am my own boss, which brings me bushels of psychological benefits that far outweigh the irritation of having to keep my own financial and taxation records.

I am in a long-term, stable marriage to a person I love, who shares many of my tastes and interests, and with whom I greatly still enjoy spending time.

We are, while not flush, not struggling to cover basic living and education expenses, and well enough positioned to be able to relatively easily afford key home maintenance tasks as they arise, and decent swathes of charitable donations (although we could do more, and I plan to). We also manage plenty of luxuries, like meals out from time to time, family weekends away, local holidays, buying books, throwing good-sized birthday parties, going to events that we're interested in, and suchlike. We are also able to plan and save for bigger things if we are careful, such as 2015's kitchen renovation and 2018's planned overseas trip. This puts us in a position of great relative privilege and I am well aware of it.

I have been able to stabilise my autoimmune conditions, and flares have become much rarer over the past 6-9 months, to the point that I am actually quite surprised now to have a run of bad days (whereas this was the norm 18 months ago).

I have some absolutely awesome friends - some long-term, some of more recent vintage - who make my life much better.

I am free to indulge my lifelong passion for reading, as well as build my poetic practice, in ways that I find immensely rewarding.

I live in a state that is becoming something of a beacon in troubled times in terms of the compassion, sense and achievement of our state government.

I live in safety, free of the fear of violent death, or even of having guns casually waved around in my vicinity.

I live in a country where sexism and misogyny are at least blunted in professional and public life by legislation and common consent, despite their pervasiveness in broader attitudes still,

I live, insofar as anyone does in a capitalist economy: free.

By any measure, I've got a lot to be thankful for. It doesn't hurt to remember that, specifically and intentionally, sometimes.