Since its unveiling last month, the appearance of His Bloody Project on the Man Booker Prize shortlist has been a fervent talking point. While some critics have commended the Foundation for giving an independent, unknown Scotsman the opportunity to fare against principal players like Deborah Levy, others have had a more cynical approach. A few newspapers have unfairly undermined author Graeme Macrae Burnet’s accomplishment by seeing his success as a premeditated decision to add a little excitement to what was a flagging competition, dangerously at risk of losing the public’s following.
However, overshadowed in all this speculation has been any true recognition of the incredible skill that His Bloody Project reflects. In the guise of a historical novel, comprised of coincidentally found documents related to a triple-murder case in nineteenth century Scotland, Macrae Burnet fools us all with an entirely fictional piece of work that feels so genuine that bookshops have been displaying the work in the non-fiction section.
Authenticity is a word that is heavily used when discussing Macrae Burnet’s work; however, it feels inadequate. He is a writer who has ruptured readers’ preconceived notions of narrative structure and the novel’s form. Even the murder case is not as straightforward as it may seem. Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae is quick to admit that he was responsible for the murder of cruel Constable Lachlan Mackenzie and the others. And yet, as the novel progresses, the reality presented by Roddy is contradicted by the further accounts provided. From beneath this gruesome story of vindication emerge elements of a psychological thriller; for while at first his actions may feel justified in reaction to Lachlan’s ruthless mistreatment of his family, the conflicting reports suggest a far more sinister motive behind Roddy’s brutal act. Are we dealing with a case of fleeting insanity or a more calculated ‘bloody project’?
As Roddy’s trial plays out (wonderfully imagined and conceptualised from a journalistic standpoint), the reader must weigh up the confession of the abused, unwanted crofter, against the autopsy reports and psychological evaluation that disprove the crofter’s ‘honest’ account.
It is through his measured writing style that Macrae Burnet so expertly conjures this confounding legitimacy. The language of His Bloody Project is modest, with its simplicity mirroring the lives of those in the small, nondescript crofting village of Culduie. On the other hand, it is the remarkably eloquent words of the perpetrator, which engender in the reader the possibility that Roddy is not the degenerate, barbaric Highlander he is charged with being. This triumph over prejudice is only one of the many ways that Roddy captures our attention and empathy, seeing his actions as justice for a community that has been wrongly controlled by the power-hungry Lachlan.
The novel’s ambiguity, which leaves the reader reeling long after the final page, is exactly Macrae Burnet’s intention. Even he admits to not knowing what exactly happened on that fateful day in Culduie; nor does he have any intention of attempting to work it out. This closure the novel purposely fails to offer pushes the reader to go over the varied accounts time and time again. It forces the individual, like the judicial system, to question whether they are right to sympathise with Roddy. It also stirs the unsettling possibility that the young crofter, like his creator, has also deluded us all.
Whatever the result later on this month, Macrae Burnet’s life is changed forever: from being turned down by tiny bookshops in his attempt to promote his first novel, to being overwhelmed by requests for interviews and book signings (including his recent appearance at Waterstones on Princes Street last Tuesday). Having been unable to write a single word since his sudden breakthrough, Macrae Burnet is nevertheless appreciative of how well the book has been received. While the success of his duplicity is of course a compliment to his work, it hasn’t been without consequences. Amongst his repeated need to clarify the novel’s fictional status, Macrae Burnet also admits an anxiety he had choosing Culduie as the setting from such a horrifying event. Thankfully, for us and for him, his girlfriend convinced him that to create a fictional town would discredit the novel’s original purpose.
His Bloody Project is many things – a piece of art, a work of genius, a relentless page-turner – as is its author – master of deception, assured wordsmith, and worthy Man Booker contender. His place on the shortlist is anything but a publicity stunt.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, Contraband (2015)
Photo credit: Callicvol