Quote of the book: ‘One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.’
Reading this book was a new departure for me. For a number of years now, I have made a special effort to read the latest Man Booker winner and as many past winners as possible. This year, I eyeballed a few of the nominees and decided to read one or two before the big decision this October. When ‘His Bloody Project’ became available on NetGalley for review, I snapped at the chance. Apparently though, I am not the only one interested in this gory tale as HBP has easily been the best selling nominee to date.
Of all the Man Bookers that I have read, this was the most readable. Far too often, words like ‘unputdownable’ describe those all engrossing reads that take over our lives and while I did put this book down a couple of times, it is also noteworthy that I managed to finish it in only two or three sittings. Graeme Macrae Burnet must be commended for how he has put this book together. His story of murder and madness in the Scottish Highlands truly flows off the page at an incredible pace. The novel is presented as a series of ‘found’ case files and this makes his story very real. In fact, so convincing is the author’s own introductory preface and other inserted ‘files’ that even now I am still questioning myself as to how much of the subject matter was fact or fiction. As we all know, stories with a hint of truth always seem to capture our imaginations to a greater extent.
The books first half is dominated by the account of Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae. From the off it is clear that our main protagonist is somewhat of a social simpleton. Roddy’s voice is used to paint an engrossing picture of life in the small backwater village of Culduie during the 19th Century. He immerses the reader in the life of a crofter, scraping an existence off the land each day before returning to simple homes shared by man and animal alike.
‘…for folk like us there was no other ship than the hard ship.’
We also get a glimpse of the gentlemen class that live nearby in the Big House and who spend their day’s horse riding and hunting. But, it is Roddy’s fellow villager, Lachan Mackenzie, that is the novel’s true villain and throughout Roddy’s account we see how this spiteful neighbour goes out of his way to slyly oppress and harass the Macrae family. This book is unusual in that from early on we know that Roddy commits three bloody murders and it is clear that this oppressor is his main target. What works very well however is that we do not find out until much later who the other two victims are and this excellently adds to the tension of the story. It certainly is unsettling to see how Roddy’s family life slowly unravels from the beginning of his recount right up to the novel’s bloody crescendo.
The second half of the book takes a different shape. Here we read an extract from James Bruce Thomson’s Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy. James Bruce Thomson is one of the few real life historical characters in the novel who takes part in a purely fictional sense. As I started this section of the novel, I was anxious that the change in narrative style would take away from the compelling testimony that came before. Thomson comes across as an arrogant, prejudiced snob and when he encounters Roddy Macrae in his prison cell it immediately becomes clear that he has little or no sympathy for the accused. What Thomson’s character brilliantly adds to the story is the perspective of the gentleman class towards the lower classes. When he endeavours to investigate the case further, his visit and subsequent opinion of Culduie village life is particularly memorable.
‘If one’s cup of water is foul, one must first ascertain if the well is poisoned. If we find that the well is indeed polluted, it may have some bearing on whether or not he is responsible for his deeds.’
This brings us to the book’s natural conclusion, Roddy’s trial in Inverness. Once again, the author uses another real life historical character, newsman John Murdoch, to add a flavour of reality to his tale. Once again, I was anxious that the change of writing style and context would affect the stories momentum. All credit to the author, he continues to write in a frantic manner right up to the jury’s ultimate decision and, like all good court scenes, the back and forth nature of the dialogue keeps the reader on edge almost as if they were there in the public gallery watching.
A book involving the brutal murder of three villagers is never going to have a happy ending and Macrae Burnet circumvents this by writing an ending that is open to individual interpretation. He leaves enough room between his characters’ testimonies for the reader to form an opinion and this is a daring ploy to finish his body of work with. Personally, I was disappointed with how it all tied up but on reflection I was not surprised either. This is just one of those books that need to be read and discussed with others for maximum enjoyment.
‘Viewed from far above, the township seemed no more than a child’s toy. The people and livestock were no larger than specks of ash and it was difficult to credit that anything which occurred there was of any consequence.’
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Yes. Fans of historical fiction will love this as well as followers of crime fiction. The format of the book makes it a very easy read and the tale is quite believable. Although we know who commits the murders early on, this does not take anything away from the story. Roddy Macrae and the village of Culduie will live long in the memory after you put this one down.
Parts of this book reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, which follows a similar storyline of madness on the fringes of society. For an interesting non-fiction read I would also recommend Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test for a further glimpse into the difficulties of labelling insanity.
Will this book win the Man Booker?
It is an exceptional work of historical fiction, written in a well-paced and authentic manner. I have a feeling it might not be ‘art-house’ enough to claim a Man Booker and maybe it is a bit too mainstream. Whatever happens with this week’s announcement, this book will continue to sell well.