His Bloody Project

his-bloody-projectI love a good historical thriller, so I was delighted to see this book by Graeme Macrae Burnet on the Booker longlist. It was, after all, the Booker longlist that finally got me to read Sarah Waters. Might Burnet be as good as Waters? Okay, that’s too much to hope for perhaps, but something along the lines of Michael Cox would be perfectly fine. And there is a great deal about this book to enjoy.

Burnet frames the story as something he came across when doing research into the life of his grandfather. The book itself is a collection of documents, the bulk of which is the memoir by 17-year-old Roderick Macrae from the tiny Scottish village of Culduie. Roddy wrote the memoir in 1869 while in jail awaiting trial for a brutal triple murders. He admits to committing the crime, but the memoir provides some background into why and how he did it.

This memoir, on its own, is frequently ridiculous, and I rolled my eyes at a lot of it. A murderer with a heart of gold? Please. Give me Henry Drax of The North Water any day over that. But it is Roddy telling the story, and one of the first anecdotes he shares, involving the loss of his future victim’s sheep, reveals an essential aspect of his character that is crucial to keep in mind when reading the memoir.

Aside from Roddy himself being ridiculous, his story is a sad one, involving poverty and deprivation, often at the hands of Lachlan Broad, the man he eventually kills. A lot of it is predictable, in the way that so many stories of poverty are. Every attempt the family makes to better themselves is blocked. Roddy’s father is consumed with anger, seemingly believing that their misfortune is a judgment from God. It’s an engaging story, but on its own, it doesn’t amount to much.

It’s the documents that come after that make the memoir interesting. First, there’s a grisly description of the bodies of Roddy’s victims. Then, there’s an excerpt of a memoir by a criminal anthropologist who examined Roddy. And finally, there’s a lengthy account of Roddy’s trial.

These items are essential for showing Roddy’s memoir in the proper light. Without them, there’d be no way to know whether the ridiculousness of Roddy’s memoir was intentional or whether Burnet is a hackneyed writer trafficking entirely in cliche. However, I wish they’d been shorter. The trial account in particular was too long, especially when it went over many of the same points as in Roddy’s memoir without much deviation. And one particular event in the trial regarding the single witness for the defense was ridiculous enough that I began to doubt the author again.

Roddy’s defense hinges on the question of his sanity, and the documents that make up this novel raise a lot of interesting questions about what sanity looks like. To what degree, for example, is it defined by social class, with the more privileged deciding that those who live differently cannot be quite right? And could someone who kills in the way Roddy does possibly be considered sane? Can a person be driven to kill by circumstances? I think all of these points could have been pursued in a satisfying way without going over the same ground repeatedly, and the book might have packed more of a punch with less material after the shocking passage on the condition of the bodies.

I don’t know if this will make my Booker shortlist. I certainly found it entertaining, and I’m not one to discount that as an indicator of quality. But I’m also aware of the ways it falls short of what it could have been, which is very different from recognizing the skill behind a book but not really liking it much, which has been a common occurrence with this list.

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3 Responses to His Bloody Project

  1. I just finished this and remembered that you were reading the Booker longlist and wondered whether you had wrestled with the ending. Because I believe that the truth is neither what Roddy wrote nor what Dr. Thomson speculated, but a third option that’s darker than both presented versions, and I base my thoughts on combining what Roddy saw in his kitchen one night, his nocturnal wanderings, and his confused sexuality, plus Jetta’s decision on the day of the murders. Maybe you can guess what I concluded? My only problems is that I can’t necessarily prove my theory, but perhaps that’s Burnet’s ultimate and tantalizing point about the nature of truth.

    Well, back to my beloved Victorians (Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, etc.) where I can relish in their brilliance without having, in most cases, to wrestle with ambiguity.

    • Teresa says:

      I pretty much assumed that the answer is the straightforward truth presented in the crime scene report. I didn’t believe Roddy for a second because his memoir showed him willing to shade the truth whenever it was to his advantage. The revenge story is to his advantage, if it shows he suddenly snapped. But his motives could be more complicated than simple lust or revenge or any of the nonsense in the doctor’s report, and that’s where the questions are. Are you suggesting that his feelings for Jetta weren’t entirely brotherly? I could buy that.

      • Here’s what I thought: I believed that Roddy interrupted the father violating his daughter the same way he violated Jetta on the table, and therefore Roddy killed them all in a rage. Now that’s pretty far out there, and you need to assume that he is a good person at heart and that his proclivities for watching in the window were either fabricated by the townswoman or exaggerated. The difference between what he describes happening to the girl and what the official witness describes is important, but I don’t know whether it implies Roddy’s guilt or a masking of his shame at killing her by trying to cut out the guilt of her father. A part of me thinks that he would have mutilated the father instead of the daughter. At least one other reviewer somewhere thought that Roddy’s feelings for Jetta were incestuous; I didn’t see that. And maybe I just wanted the conclusion to be more complicated than it seemed at first blush, because otherwise the book’s repetitions are painful and not artful. On the other hand, if the repetition in all but one or two details is artful, it suggests an outcome that is not readily apparent, and that’s what I worked on until I came up with my solution, which was at least, for me, emotionally more satisfying than the straightforward one that lies on the page. Jetta’s suicide remains opaque under any situation, unless she assumes that Roddy killed Lachlan Broad as retribution for her violation and subsequent pregnancy rather than the cumulative traumas that the family faced. On the other hand, if my alternate theory is correct, Jetta’s suicide makes some sense if she takes responsibility for Broad turning his attentions to his daughter after Jetta’s own pregnancy makes her no longer an object of sexual desire to Broad. Is my idea even plausible?

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