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when you consider that the book, set in a remote mid-19th century Scottish Highlands community, purports to be actual historical documents of the time.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.

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