Friday, September 23

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I... don't... get... it. It's not bad, that's for sure. But I think I would have rated it slightly better if it hadn't been on the longlist. Heck, now it's even made the shortlist, and it's getting pretty good odds to win (not that I understand odds... though as a statistician I really shouldn't be admitting to that).

For anyone not caught up in the Man Booker 2016 hype, His Bloody Project is currently being held up as the strangest inclusion in a strange long/shortlist that's eschewed better-known or previously nominated authors for more out-there choices. It's a historical crime thriller, basically, so it stands out. And there's been a lot of talk about how this year the judges are rewarding authors who take risks with the form, while simultaneously promoting some more accessible books.

And His Bloody Project is pretty accessible. It's a page-turner, and hard to put down, which isn't always the case with these Booker-type books. It revolves around a triple murder in the 19th-century Scottish Highlands, with the story told first from the perspective of the 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, who committed the murders (and who may or may not be insane), and second from a plethora of documents - witness statements, court transcripts, a medical memoir - relating to the case and subsequent trial. So far, so juicy.

But it's lighter in plot than you might think. From the beginning of the book, there's no question as to whodunnit? It's a little closer to the truth to call it a whydunnit, but really the only question is whether Roderick was insane at the time he committed the murders. His lawyer's argument that he is suffering from 'moral insanity', or 'mania without delusion' - similar to the modern popular concept of psychopathy - is the driving question of the second half of the book. But it's a question I didn't really care to know the answer to.

Other reviews have focused on His Bloody Project's 'grand themes' of class, fatalism, sexual repression, and insanity. I must admit to not really noticing them while I was reading it, though. They were there, on reflection, colouring the action and making the mid-1800s Highlands seem like a just terrible place to live. I suppose I didn't find what the book was saying that interesting on the whole.

Reviewers have also mentioned the grand job Macrae Burnet makes at drawing the historical and geographical setting. And yes, the crofting community of Culduie was deftly brought to life by the author. The characters and places feel real, and there's a genuine sense of claustrophobia, both in setting and in its fatalistic themes, that drew me in. But there was nothing particularly special or memorable about it; the prose and descriptions are competent and assured, but not magical or extraordinary.

In fact if I could describe the whole book in a word it would probably be 'competent'. It's well written and a compelling read, but I can think of other historical mysteries that play the same post-modern strings - unreliable narrators, unusual formats, unresolved questions - better (see, for example, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which won the Booker in 2013, or Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost). I did like the book, and probably if it hadn't been on the longlist I would have given it four stars instead of three, but I went in with my expectations raised and left with them unfulfilled.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: His Bloody Project
Goodreads: His Bloody Project

No comments:

Post a Comment