Review of His Bloody Project, by Graeme Maccrae Burnet

His Bloody Project is such a gripping read that it was hard for me to believe that it was a Booker Prize nominee, a category I associate with works one carries about to impress one’s acquaintances who follow ‘literary fiction’ & the LRB, rather than to read for pleasure. It has a couple of features of the breed, tho’. The author appropriately mentions Foucault in his afterward and the criminal psychiatry is indeed ‘degree zero’ – criminal types categorised by the physiognamy & heredity. (I wonder how many categories we now use every day to classify people – especially racially & sexually – may seem equally bizarre 150 years from now.) And readers are left in some doubt as to what was ‘really’ going on in the mind of the murderer, revealed in what he doesn’t mention in his confession, particularly his sexual attraction towards one of the victims. As a historical, the book is brilliant. The incredibly bleak life of a crofter in the Scottish isles comes through powerfully because the narrator never seems aware of just how deprived he is, even though highly literate. I loved the way characters were referred to by nicknames – ‘Kenny Smoke’ ‘Black Mccrae’ ‘Lachlan Broad’ – a feature of highland culture where many share the same Christian name and surnames. Which brings out my only problem with the book. As I was reading Roderick Mccrae’s account, I kept thinking, ‘These characters ought to be speaking Gaelic.’ Actually it turned out that much of the time they were. I think were it my book, I would have tried to indicate which language was being used, perhaps with spelling of proper names & syntax. (Some of the terms in the useful glossary on p. 158 are obviously Gaelic, but others are Scots.) But that was my only caveat. This is a marvellous novel. It’s fascinating that the best historicals I’ve read recently have been set in remote parts of the United Kingdom in the reign of Victoria – Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder in Ireland, Katherine Stanfield’s Falling Creatures in Cornwall, and now Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project in the Scottish isles. In all three, the ‘Christian’ religiosity, whether Roman Catholic, Methodist or Presbyterian, is superstitious, oppressive & serves only to make the lives of the characters more miserable. All three also feature a traditional Celtic spirituality (I wish Roderick’s sister Jetta’s role had been larger) hovering in the background that gives the stories an eerie touch.

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