The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

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That’s the problem with history. We like to think it’s a book, that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

I still haven’t found that copy of Dr Zhivago I bought in January and promptly mislaid. Its absence throws all my immediate reading plans into question, not that I’m ever very good at sticking to those plans, but still, it’s the principal of the thing. In the end I gave up the search for the missing book and reluctantly added it to my Amazon wishlist ready for my birthday. You never know, I thought, I might get lucky. In the meantime I decided to focus on some of the books I received for Christmas but haven’t yet got round to reading, beginning with Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout.

I heard so much about this book in the wake of the prize nomination last year that I felt like I knew the story fairly intimately already. For those not in the know, the novel’s narrator, known affectionately as Bonbon, embarks on a campaign to quietly re-impose segregation on his home town of Dickens. His actions are partly a protest against the swallowing up of his community by the anonymous Los Angeles suburban sprawl but he’s also fuelled by a belief that there might be some tangible benefits to his campaign; when his friends and neighbours are confronted by a ‘Whites Only’ sign on a bus, for example, they’ll be reminded of how much has already been achieved and how much they still have to fight for. It’s not a genuine crusade against the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, more an opportunistic attempt to inspire and unite a lost community.

The Sellout is bitterly, darkly funny and made me laugh out loud quite suddenly and unattractively on several occasions. For the first two thirds of the novel I was enjoying it so much it was all I could do to refrain from reading whole paragraphs aloud to those around me, knowing as I do how annoying I find it when others do the same thing. The combination of Beatty’s shrewdness, his almost confrontational tone and the subject matter make this an uncomfortably entertaining read but it’s so highly entertaining that I can recommend it on this basis alone. My only real problem with The Sellout is with the final few chapters; after promising so much it just fizzles out without really acknowledging the consequences of all that has gone before. It’s almost as if such a perfectly set up plot can’t sustain the cleverness for long and collapses under its own weight. I don’t really know what I was hoping for.

Only a short review this week – that doesn’t do this book justice at all – as I’m a little behind with posts at the moment. I’ve nearly finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and I have a ton of pictures to post from my latest literary travels, which reminds me that I still haven’t posted pictures from our pilgrimage to another author grave way back in December. So many good intentions, so little time…

Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie

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Knees and nose, nose and knees.

Apparently I first attempted to read this book at the height of my BBC Big Read glory days, sometime c. 2006. I really have no memory of it but know it must have happened because ten pages in I found the address of a house I shared with some friends that year scribbled on a post it note, along with the monthly rent, number of bedrooms and phone number of the letting agent. Clearly I didn’t finish the book then, although I can’t remember why I gave up on it, but having had it languishing on my shelf ever since, judging me, it seemed about time to pick it up again and have another go.

Midnight’s Children is actually a monumentally difficult book to write about and, at times, not an easy one to read either. Rushdie weaves together layers of fact, myth, rumour and prophecy so that you often can’t really tell what you’re reading. It’s beautifully done but it does make writing a succinct plot description quite tricky, partly because, if I’m brutally honest, I’m still not quite sure what exactly happens in this book. I can tell you that Saleem Sinai, our narrator, is the original midnight’s child, born on the stroke of the hour at the very moment India leaves its colonial past behind and emerges as a newly independent state. Saleem’s life story is knitted together with that of India so it becomes part family saga, part historical epic and part magical fantasy. Rushdie presents the reader with real events like presidential coups, the war with Pakistan and Bangladesh’s violent struggle for independence but he also throws in a snake-man, children born with remarkable powers, a spinster aunt who infuses dishes with her own bitterness and a small boy with the most powerful nose in all of history.

As a narrator Saleem is absolutely infuriating at times. He drops massive hints, strays off topic, abandons stories unfinished and occasionally just invents stuff. He admits to a certain amount of fabrication, acknowledging that sometimes his dates don’t add up and that, to outsiders, some of his bigger claims must sound of preposterous. It’s his faults that make him such a compelling narrator and his sense of his own centrality to the history of a nation, his belief that his actions dictate the future of India, make his story a consuming one even if you can’t ever work out how much of it has been invented, misremembered or embellished. Through him you get a strange sense of how overwhelming the past can be.

I confess to finding Midnight’s Children heavy going at times. While it’s sparklingly, beautifully written – I mean seriously, I’m in awe – it’s the kind of book that will tie you in knots if you’re not careful. I found that my own poor knowledge of Indian history let me down on many occasions and I had frequent cause to look up things I didn’t understand (some of my recent google searches: ‘Dacca’, ‘Sanjay Ghandi, ‘shikara’ ). I don’t mind doing that – I tend to do it with lots of books because I don’t like not knowing – but I seemed to be doing it more often than usual here. However, even if I’d had some expertise I think I’d have still found plenty to confuse me. Thankfully I managed to just about hold it all together so that I was never so baffled that I lost myself completely or was tempted to give up. As long as I paid vigorous attention, and had Dr Google to hand, I was never confused beyond endurance. Now that it’s over and my poor brain can relax a little I’m convinced that Midnight’s Children was worth the effort. I didn’t always enjoy it at the time but I can now only wonder at Rushdie’s attention to detail, his skill at layering story upon story and his ability to bring characters, countries and a whole nation’s history to life. It’s quite a feat really.

I had planned to read Dr Zhivago next but I’ve somehow managed to lose the copy I bought at the start of the year. How annoying… Now that I think about it, it’s probably for the best because I think I deserve, and would appreciate, something slightly easier for my next read.

Monsignor Quixote (1982) by Graham Greene

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I ‘borrowed’ this book from my dad a few months ago in preparation for a weekend trip to Madrid we were planning although, in the end, the holiday rolled round before I’d had chance to make much progress. I started reading back in March, two nights before our flight in fact, and then didn’t touch it again until about a week after our return so I can’t really say that it added a great deal to my cultural appreciation of Spain. However, it did tie in quite nicely with our happening upon the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho in Madrid’s Plaza de Espana while we were away. I’ve not actually read Don Quixote, and at this point I’d read very little of Monsignor Quixote, but I appreciated the timing all the same.

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This book is definitely a bit of a slow burner. Greene reimagines the Don Quixote story with a modern day priest, supposedly a descendant of the original Quixote, who embarks on an eventful journey across Spain in a banged out car with his friend ‘Sancho’, a dismissed Communist mayor. There are a few funny mishaps, they get in trouble along the way, attract the wrong kind of attention and ultimately end up pursued by the local police at the behest of the Monsignor’s horrified Bishop. All this drama serves as a backdrop against which the Monsignor and the Mayor discuss faith, doubt, God, Marx, politics, contraception and everything in between. Along the way they also eat some cheese and drink a lot of Manchegan wine.

Through the conversations between the Monsignor and his friend Greene explores faith and doubt, always two sides of the same coin in his eyes, suggesting that you can never really be a true believer in anything unless you are constantly plagued by doubt. As the Monsignor leaves the seclusion of his quiet village benefice behind him he’s increasingly given cause to struggle with his belief in God, and the moral values of the established church, just as Sancho’s admiration for his socialist heroes in the East are taking a similar knock. They have plenty to argue about and I found some of their discussions really interesting, especially those sparked by the priest’s naïve exploration of this new world (there’s a particularly funny bit with a ‘balloon’ he discovers in Sancho’s overnight bag). These discussions are well handled by Greene, I think, so that they’re challenging and interesting but not completely baffling or alienating for those of us who have never found anything much worth believing in. About mid-way through I found my interest starting to wane a little but I was sucked back in towards the end in time for some really poignant final scenes.

I don’t think Monsignor Quixote is like any of the other Graham Greene novels I’ve read, even though it does contain the obligatory moral wrangling that tends to be at the heart of some of them. If I’m very honest with myself I probably missed some of the grittiness of his earlier works and I expect that’s probably why I started to feel quite tired of all the talk. That said, I did really enjoy the ending and felt quite moved by this strange turn of events. It left me wondering how much of the Monsignor’s myth of himself I could believe and how far that line between the real and the imagined had been blurred in the course of his journey with Sancho. It felt like my own faith in this story was deliberately being challenged by the storyteller, which is quite bizarre when you think about it.

I finally finished Midnight’s Children in bed last night. Hurrah! Post coming soon…

Top Ten Tuesday: Instant reads 

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Each week a new theme is posted and this time it’s all about those little things that make you instantly want to read a book.

I’m a creature of annoyingly predictable habits. I swear I try not to be; I push myself to try new things all the time and I love it when this yields surprisingly pleasant results. But I can’t help the embarrassing fact that sometimes nothing feels quite as good as the comfort zone. Here’s what mine looks like:

  1. India, France or Russia. I suspect this is for no deeper or more meaningful reason than the fact that some of my favourite books are set in these three countries. Books by Indian, French and Russian authors are fairly highly represented on my shelves.

Suggestions: The God of Small Things, Suite Francais, Anna Karenina

  1. Maps and plans. If a book opens with a plan – of a fictional country or an ancient building for example – then my excitement will know no bounds.

Suggestions: The Hobbit, The Name of the Rose, Treasure Island 

  1. Inter-war. I’m naturally drawn to books set between the wars. I expect it’s just because so much changed in so very little time and you can see that reflected in the books of the period, sandwiched as they are between the traditional classics and modern fiction.

Suggestions: Vile Bodies, I Capture The Castle, The Great Gatsby

  1. Traditional murder mystery. I’m not a fan of modern crime fiction but I will happily read a golden oldie any time. They’re entertaining and easy to read and not half as grimas their modern equivalents.

Suggestions: The Moonstone, Murder on the Orient Express, The Nine Taylors

  1. An arty cover.I seem to own a ton of classic novels with covers featuring artworks, specifically art depicting beautiful but sad looking women.

Suggestions: On Tangled Paths, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The House of Mirth

  1. Letters, diaries and documents. I suspect I like these just because my lazy brain can’t always be arsed with lengthy descriptions, scene setting and inner monologue. Sometimes it just wants the facts explained as concisely as possible thank you very much.

Suggestions: His Bloody Project, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾  

  1. A quest for the truth. It is a truth universally acknowledged that books with protagonists who must uncover a long dead secret are splendid, especially if said protagonist must visit dusty archives, unravel clues hidden in a diary or (preferably) poem and interview elderly witnesses who clearly have something to hide.

Suggestions: Possession, A Very Long Engagement, The Woman in White

  1. Looking back.A regretful narrator (or narrators) telling the story of that thing that happened long, long ago is one of my favouritest things ever.

Suggestions: Atonement, The Poisonwood Bible, The Secret History

  1. Monasteries and cathedrals.I don’t know why this is either.

Suggestions: The Name of the Rose, Dissolution, The Pillars of the Earth

  1. Family trees. I love a family saga, particularly ones so complicated a family tree is necessary to help the reader untangle the narrative. It’s the sense of history that appeals to me I think.

Suggestions: War and Peace, The Forsyte Saga, One Hundred Years of Solitude

 

 

Bookish news #1

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I’m quite conscious that over the past few months I’ve primarily been writing hasty review posts (with the occasional Top Ten Tuesday) and that the gaps between them have been getting longer and longer. This blog started out as a place for me to just chat about books and what interested me generally but as time has gone on I’ve found it easier to just run off a half-baked review post every now and again than I have to put time and effort into writing something decent. Time has been rushing away from me and I’m starting to wonder whether the blue bore has really been getting the attention from me that it deserves. In an effort to address the imbalance I’m thinking about occasionally writing a quick update post like this one every now and again to make myself feel better about neglecting the blog for weeks at a time and really just to inject some much needed life back into the blue bore.

Here’s my first attempt:

1. I’m still plugging away at Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and have been for a few weeks now. I think I’m enjoying it. I seem to spend a lot of time scratching my head and feeling confused but that’s normal I think…isn’t it?

2. I bought a second hand copy of Dr Zhivago with the sneaky intention of using it for both Around The World in 80 Books and for Fiction Fan’s Russian Revolution Challenge. Now I look at it closely it doesn’t seem to be as long as I expected so I’m wondering whether I’ve unwittingly bought an abridged version. It’d be nicer to read the whole thing.

3. My Amazon wishlist expanded to six times its original size when the finalists for the Man Booker International Prize were released last month. I was really pleased to see an Ismail Kadare book on the list as I’ve been going on and on about reading another of his books for a while now but haven’t actually done anything about it. It’s my birthday in June so fingers crossed.

4. Being generally interested in anything at all to do with Sylvia Plath I was intrigued by the news that several letters she wrote to her therapist in the years leading up to her death had been put up for auction this week. The letters apparently make for grim reading but I was fascinated by this particular article on their potential influence on how we understand Plath’s life. It’s worth a read.

5. And lastly, after enjoying Vile Bodies  so much back in January I had to record the BBC’s new adaptation of Decline and Fall. I haven’t had chance to watch it yet and I’ve not seen any reviews anywhere. Has it been any good?; that’s what I would like to know. Opinions appreciated.

I think that should be enough to bring us up to speed for now and hopefully it won’t be such a long time until I have something more substantial to post. I still haven’t reviewed Monsignor Quixote which I read weeks ago so I’ll aim to get that up here soon.

 

The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jannson

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During the first weeks of the new year I went on a bit of a book buying bender and I’m now feeling quite spent and ashamed of myself. Thankfully the situation is finally under control; I am firmly back on the wagon and have not bought any new books in a month, despite having been sorely tempted on several occasions. Go me.

The Summer Book was bought at Waterstones during one of the above sprees. It came down to an agonising toss-up between this and Elizabeth von Armin’s Enchanted April but in the end this was £1 cheaper so… It’s been a welcome addition to my reading year and I kind of love it, which is weird because not a great deal happens at all. This is a semi-fictionalised story set on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago where Grandmother and six year old Sophia spend their summers. Sophia’s widowed father is also there but he’s almost peripheral; while he works at his desk Sophia and her grandmother potter about the island, exploring, watching the long tailed ducks and quietly enjoying each other’s company.

A write up in The Guardian, written when this book was reissued a few years ago, describes The Summer Book as ‘a butterfly released into a room full of elephants’ and ‘a masterpiece of microcosm, a perfection of the small, quiet read’. I can’t really say it better than that. For me the joy of The Summer Book lies in the simplicity of its central relationship. This gruff old woman, with her aching limbs and her tendency to dwell too much on the past, obviously loves the company of her curious, wilful grandchild, although neither of them would ever admit as much. They’re very similar at heart but Jannson never sentimentalises their relationship, overstates how much they learn from each other or exaggerates Sophia’s childishness. Her humour and lightness of touch are absolutely perfect and make this a really easy, gentle and enjoyable read.

It was quiet again. Sophia stood waiting on the shore where the grass lay stretched on the ground like a light-coloured pelt. And now a new darkness came sweeping over the water – the great storm itself! She ran towards it and was embraced by the wind. She was cold and fiery at the same time and she shouted loudly, “It’s the wind! It’s the wind!” God had sent her a storm of her own. 

There’s not a thing I can say in criticism of this book which makes this an unusually brief review. Actually that’s not quite true – I can tell you that as a result of this book I ‘wasted’ a good hour on Google images admiring pictures of islands in the Gulf of Finland when I should have been logging onto online banking. The Gulf has now leapfrogged its way up my list of ideal future travel destinations and I am sincerely regretting my lack of funds with which to finance such a visit.

I Capture The Castle (1949) by Dodie Smith

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My love affair with this book goes back nearly twenty years and I’ve long since lost sight of precisely what it is that binds me to it. If you were to press me on the subject I’d probably say something vague and noncommittal about how much I love Cassandra’s narration and her witty portraits of her mad family. I might also mumble something about the fact that their dilapidated Suffolk castle provided a romantic fictional escape from my own teenage home on a dismal fenland council estate. In truth, however, I really have no idea why I have loved this book for so long. I just know that I have and that it makes it really hard to write an objective review now that I’ve just reread it. I suspect anything I write will sound either a bit too gushy or (worse?) just a bit stale. Instead, in lieu of my usual review style post, here are some of my favourite quotes from I Capture the Castle… 

The opening scene contains some of my favourite descriptions but I particularly love this exchange between Cassandra, her desperate sister Rose and stepmother Topaz at the height of their genteel poverty:

“…It may interest you both to know that for some time now I’ve been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets.” 

I told her she couldn’t go on the streets in the depths of Suffolk. 

“But if Topaz will kindly lend me the fare to London and give me a few hints-” 

Topaz said she had never been on the streets and rather regretted it, ‘because one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights,’ which is the kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate. 

It makes me think of this later comment:

“Topaz was wonderfully patient – but sometimes I wonder if it is not only patience but also a faint resemblance to cows…” 

God bless Topaz.

Two profound truths that I couldn’t agree with more:

“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.” 

“Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did – flat country seems to give the sky such a chance.” 

I’m not lying when I say that I think of this passage almost every time I enter the eerie silence of a really old church:

I could hear rain still pouring from the gutters and a thin branch scraping against one of the windows; but the church seemed completely cut off from the restless day outside  – just as I felt cut off from the church. I thought: I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness. 

That might be my favourite one of all I also love the slow evolution from this:

“I know all about the facts of life and I don’t think much of them.” 

To this:

“No bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.”

To this:

“Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” 

Forgive the departure from my normal style – this just seemed the easiest way to approach this particular topic but my usual posts will resume very soon. I just read Tove Jannson’s Summer Book and adored it so there’ll be more in a day or two…

 

Sparkling Cyanide (1945) by Agatha Christie

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It should be a literary crime to give rather ordinary mysteries such evocative titles as this, especially when there’s already a particularly intriguing blurb on the back to hook the reader in. I was decidedly underwhelmed by this book – unusually so for an Agatha Christie – and now I can’t decide whether it’s the fault of the book, the title or just the fact that I was pretty spaced out on Lemsip at the time of reading. Probably the latter. I’d already been in bed sick for two looong days by the time I reached for this; I was cranky, bored and lacking both the energy and the will to read anything too demanding on the old grey cells. Usually Christie is ideal at times like these but she didn’t really do the trick on this occasion. I suspect I’m being a trifle unfair.

Sparkling Cyanide reunites several acquaintances for a rather tense dinner party at the Hotel Luxembourg. Gathered together are staid businessman George Barton and his young ward Iris, George’s doting secretary, a mysterious American businessman, a devious politician and his dutiful but very posh trophy wife. They’re all there to mark the passing of George’s late wife Rosemary who very publicly committed suicide at this table in this restaurant in front of these very same guests a year previously. It’s a macabre excuse for a gathering and of course, of course one of the guests is poisoned during dinner in an almost exact recreation of Rosemary’s death. Of course.  

“I’d like to give these detective story writers a course of routine work. They’d soon learn how most things are untraceable and nobody ever notices anything anywhere!”

There’s no Poirot or Marple in this one and I missed them both. It’s down to George’s old friend Colonel Race to identify the killer and determine whether Rosemary may also have fallen foul of a sinister plot. He does a fair job, Colonel Race, but without the flair or humour I might have expected from his more regular counterparts. Overall this felt like a fairly formulaic mystery: the set up was quite laboured and there was less of the wit and double bluffing that Christie usually employs to liven up the more mundane stories. I did fall prey to one red herring for a time but in the end I’d more or less guessed the killer anyway and instead of feeling triumphant I was left with the flat, dissatisfied feeling I always get when I’ve been proven right. Ho hum.

In my headachey, fuzzy haze I took Christie’s failure to keep me sufficiently entertained too personally. I decided that if she couldn’t offer me something decent to read at this difficult time then I would just have to resort to something more reliably cheering. I reached for I Capture The Castle which appears to be my go-to book when I’m sick. I’m so predictable.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

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Throughout January I listened to the audiobook version of Clare Harman’s excellent and very sensible biography of Charlotte Bronte on my drive home from work each evening. I always think January is the bleakest of months and I don’t particularly enjoy long stretches in the car at the best of times so as the days passed I was surprised to find myself looking forward to my cosy night-time drives with the Brontes. As the audiobook was drawing to a close I wanted to prolong that nice companionable feeling a bit longer so I went on the hunt for a new-to-me Bronte novel in all the (three) bookshops close to my office. I had an idea that it might be a good time to read Agnes Grey or Villette or (ideally) some of Emily’s poetry, but alas, it was not to be.

The best I could manage was a rather tatty copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which I found squished at the end the Bronte section in Waterstones. It followed a whole shelf and a half stuffed full with beautiful copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights which made me feel a little sad for poor, overlooked Anne Bronte.  I was pretty certain I’d read this already (and didn’t think much of it) but my memories were pretty hazy so I parted with the cash and it came home with me. It turns out that the book I read fifteen years ago was possibly one of those abridged versions mutilated by Anne’s horrified publishers in the years after her death. It was definitely much shorter than the version I’ve just read so I had a hard time reconciling this version with the one I very vaguely remember from back then. It’s nice in a way because it made the book feel new-to-me all over again.

Anne’s publishers subjected the book to pretty heavy editing after her death to mitigate some of the negative publicity that both of Anne’s published novels seem to have attracted.  It seems highly unfair now but I expect the novel’s themes were pretty shocking to readers of the time (“Wildfell Hall it hardly seems to me desirable to preserve”, wrote Charlotte later. “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake”).  This is the story of Helen Huntingdon and her radical decision to flee from a drunken, womanising husband after years of torment at his hands. Much of Helen’s story is told in diary format but it’s sandwiched between letters written several years later by Gilbert Markham, her only friend during her months in exile. For once, I wasn’t a huge fan of the diary/letter style but only because it feels like such a direct, confrontational novel; I think it needs a more direct style of narration perhaps.

“… for, since he and I are one, I so identify myself with him that I feel his degradation, his failings and transgressions as my own; I blush for him, I fear for him, I repent for him, weep, pray and feel for him as myself; but I cannot act for him and hence I must be, and am, debased, contaminated by the union, both in my own eyes and in the actual truth…” 

My main fascination with this novel lies in the fact that it so obviously draws upon Anne’s own experiences with her brother Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and drug addiction. It must, I think, have been a bitterly uncomfortable book to write and it gives you a strange sense of how impotent the sisters must have felt as they watched their brother rage and waste away the opportunities offered to him as the only son in the family. The injustice of their situation is mirrored in Helen’s powerlessness to do anything for herself or for husband. Of course, in the eyes of the law and the church Helen’s property is Arthur’s property, she is Arthur’s property, so she is completely at his mercy. Her decision to run away is a radical one but leaves her vulnerable to rumour, suspicion and condemnation.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to based on my experiences with the abridged version fifteen years ago. I’m reluctant to spend too much time comparing it to the other Bronte novels I’ve read but I will say that it doesn’t have the romantic brutality of Wuthering Heights but it’s not as restrained as Jane Eyre either. Anne clearly didn’t feel shy about portraying a very real and very common, but rarely discussed, problem in all its grubby sordidness or to say that it wasn’t fair to deprive women of any power to help themselves in situations such as this. The writing isn’t as polished as her sisters’ perhaps but while the subject matter (and all the moralising) may feel a little dated now it’s a much braver novel than it perhaps gets credit for.

I detested Gilbert Markham more than I hated Helen’s wicked husband but it’s weirdly refreshing every now and again to read a Victorian novel in which the menfolk are unremittingly awful in every possible way.

His Bloody Project (2016) by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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I’ve probably mentioned a hundred times before that I’m a sucker for an unusual narrative style and particularly for stories told in letter or diary format. This book caught my eye last year, before it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, because of its subtitle: “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.” Hang on a second there, sunshine. Documents? Just my cup of tea. After that I fully intended to pick this up at the next opportunity but, as so often happens, promptly forgot about it as soon as something else came along. That’s just typical really. I spotted it again during some impromptu bookshop browsing a few weekends ago and then managed to read the whole thing before the weekend was over. That should tell you how daft I was to delay reading it for so long.

“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone…”

In the preface to his novel Burnet describes this as a true story uncovered while he was researching his own family history in a Scottish archive. I don’t believe that’s actually true but it’s a clever layer to the fiction and adds a certain gravity to the tale he goes on to tell. The story he’s uncovered is that of seventeen year old Roddy Macrae who, we’re told, was charged with a horrific triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. In this novel Burnet brings together all the original evidence relating to the trial that followed: the witness statements, post mortems, expert opinions, court transcripts and, most remarkably, Roddy’s own lengthy account of the events leading up to the crime. Roddy’s defence claims that he was suffering from a sort of temporary insanity at the time of the murders but would an insane man know he was insane? And if so, can you really trust anything he tells you?

This isn’t a straight forward crime/detective genre novel. Instead, as Burnet applies layer upon layer of information he leaves the reader to decide how far the evidence can be trusted and whether Roddy was really in his right mind at the time of the murders. I think the ‘documents’ format works really well in this respect as it means the reader can see the same man, and the same crime, from several different angles, each one with its own agendas and prejudices. Burnet’s restraint in handling all these different layers is evident here and it never feels disjointed or jarring. With hindsight I’m not sure that Roddy’s own account of the crime feels quite as historically authentic as some of the other reports but in some ways this works in the novel’s favour. It certainly creates a really atmospheric picture of this tiny, isolated community with its ancient customs, language, feuds and tensions.

It took me a while to realise that Burnet was deliberately leaving the ‘facts’ of the case open to interpretation by providing conflicting opinions and omitting certain details from Roddy’s memoir. One key piece of information mentioned briefly in a post-mortem report had me scratching my head for ages as it didn’t tally with Roddy’s own account, which I wanted to be truthful. It was at his point that I realised that there was clearly more to this tale than initially meets the eye and I spent much of my time from hereon waiting for a twist, a big reveal, that would suddenly make everything fall into place. However, I think by refusing to hold your hand or provide all the answers Burnet makes this a much more gripping, though unnerving, read. It’s the kind of book that will either leave you disappointed by the lack of answers or raking over the details in your head for days following. My response was much more like the latter.