My rating: 5 of 5 stars
His Bloody Project (2015) by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a work of art, and it is of no great surprise that the book was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and was the 2016 Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year.
Burnet’s book is practically flawless; when the author does make an allusive mistake, it is precisely done so to add greater weight to the authenticity of the historical documents, one of which is said to have been written by a seventeen-year-old boy named Roderick “Roddy” Macrae, who is a “crofter” (farmer) by trade and on trial for a brutal triple murder.
His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae (a novel) takes place in the Scottish Highlands (namely Culduie) in 1869, and calls into question the issue of insanity. Is Roddy insane or sane when he calmly and faithfully confesses to the triple murders (who would do such a thing)? That is one of the many questions Burnet asks the reader to consider when navigating a world rich with humanity and history.
Of an almost Ishmael-like quality (from Moby Dick, 1851), Burnet captures the innocence and complexity of youth and ignorance in Roddy, who begins his narrative by slaughtering out of pity his neighbor’s sheep. But before this gruesome incident unfolds, Roddy (who is composing this scene as well) reveals a deeper (Darker? Wholesome? Guiltless? Tragic?) more beautiful side when he wishes his sister beside him in a pool on the side of the mountain (After all, Roddy could either have incestuous thoughts for his sister Jetta or he could just be a younger sibling who has not fully matured sexually yet; either way, the reader must draw the conclusions, because Roddy does not provide a hint nor clue to the deeper emotions below the surface of his actions and his wishes, and this sort of ambiguity prevails throughout the book):
“The waterfall was among a cluster of birch, with a deep pool at its well. It was cool among the trees. The rocks were worn smooth by the centuries’ passage of water. I cupped my hands into the pool to take a drink, then splashed water over my face and head. I took off my clothes and stepped into the water. I closed my eyes and let myself float on my back. Light flickered orange through my eyelids. I listened to the roar of water on water and felt that when I emerged Culduie, Aird-Dubh and everything else would be gone, and I would be entirely alone in the world. I wished only that when I opened my eyes Jetta would be standing on a rock, stepping out of her clothes and joining me in the pool. I opened my eyes and watched the droplets of water fly up like sparks from a fire. I would have happily remained there for the rest of the afternoon, but I was conscious of my duty to the livestock. I allowed the sun to dry my skin, before dressing and setting off down the hillside” (pg 31).
The immaculate prose completely draws the reader into the scene and pulls at the swirling logic beyond the visible and obvious (what great books do). Is Roddy insane (sane?) or is he suffering from (at the time) an unknown and undiagnosed case of depression and/or a bipolar disorder, one minute at peace with the joy of the world and the next minute killing a wounded sheep, which begins a chain of events that ends in the triple murder, “his bloody project.” Even Roddy confesses to himself: “I have always shrunk from killing so much as a hen, and do not understand why educated men regard the killing of living creatures as sport” (pg 33).
Should we believe Roddy? Should we take the word of the young man who we know from the very first page of the book has killed three individuals (who these individuals are remain a mystery through most of the book), even though Roddy has freely and calmly confessed to the murders because he wishes to free his father from burdens? What should the reader believe? Should we believe Roddy? His darker, more hidden designs? Can we truly trust the actions and words of an individual? Even Scotland has been betrayed by false words and false promises (see historical implications).
A little after the events with the pool and the killing of the sheep (a sacrificial cleansing and offering in symbolic terms?), Roddy writes in his narrative of another incident with animals while out on a hunting party. He, a servant, carries the dishware for the lunch while the hunters seek out wild game in the highlands:
“I was close enough to the gentleman to see his finger move towards the trigger. I looked again to the stag and felt it a terrible shame that it should die in order that this man might mount its head on the wall of his parlour. The gentleman’s finger curled around the trigger. Without any forethought, I leapt suddenly to my feet and bounded over the ridge, flapping my arms like a great bird and crowing like a cock. The deer below took flight and the gentleman loosed his shot into the air. The ghillie leapt forward, grabbed me by the arm and threw me roughly to the ground. I was, at that moment, as shocked as he by my actions and immediately regretted them” (pgs 52-53).
Obviously, from Roddy’s actions, he has told the reader some sense of the truth: that on some level he values all forms of life. Still, can the reader trust Roddy? Is he a fool? Is he a simpleton? An uneducated halfwit? Or is he prone to his deeper senses and fancies? He is, after all according to the educated characters in the book, able to write incredible, intelligent prose: a balance between the acts of creation and destruction. The questions mount, even as Roddy, who by this time sees strange things and hears strange voices, takes to wondering the countryside at night:
“It was around this time that I took to travelling abroad at night. Sleep no longer came easily to me and even when I drifted off I was awoken by the slightest stirring of the twins or of an animal outside. In the quiet of the night, all sorts of visions summon themselves from the embers of the fire or the lowing of a stirk. I sometimes fancied that I saw figures rising from the smoke, or heard some voice outside whispering to me, and I would lie on my bunk in a state of fearfulness, awaiting the arrival of some horror. I thus took to forsaking my bed and wandering the hills. I imagined myself as one of my own visions, a shape half-seen in the murk, glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye before being dismissed as a fancy. My habit was to disappear between the gables of houses, climb some distance onto the Càrn and gaze down upon the township. In the yellow months, the nights here are never properly dark. The world appears instead as if all colour has been drained from it, and when the moon is high, everything is silver, as if rendered in the etching of a book. If I found myself close to the windows of my neighbors, I would gaze enviously at the slumbering bodies” (p 91).
The stalking, sleepless, peeping Roddy doesn’t sound so innocent and sane now, does he?
At around this point, however, the reader does begin to hope Roddy didn’t actually commit these three murders. Somehow, he is taking the fall for his father or for someone else. That Roddy is innocent of these horrible crimes. Who could it be?
The author has done his job (both Burnet and Roddy) when the doubt begins to build and the mystery behind the murders thicken. When Roddy meets Flora and falls in love, you almost hope they will run away and start a life together, and the tragedy of the three murders will be spared. If only Roddy had listened to Flora that day, who knows what might have happened?
“As I drew nearer, I was struck by the delicacy of her features. Coils of hair blew unnoticed around her face in the breeze. I stopped a few paces away, but Flora was quite absorbed, or pretending to be so, in the methodical destruction of a dandelion, the yellow petals of which littered her skirts.
“I greeted her and she looked up from her activity.
“‘Hello, Roddy,’ she said.
“I was to unable to engage in any prevarication. ‘I have been looking out for you these last days,’ I said. ‘And was sorry not to have seen you.’
“‘Is that so?’ she said.
“A faint smile played on her lips and she cast her eyes down towards the petals on her skirt as if my statement had pleased her.
“‘I have been working at the Big House,’ she said.
“I was pleased that Flora saw fit to furnish me with this explanation for her absence.
“I nodded and stepped a little closer to her.
“‘Where are you going?’ she asked.
“‘I am not going anywhere,’ I said.
“‘Then it is a fortunate thing that you happened to be passing on your way to nowhere when I was sitting here.’
“‘Yes,’ I said. ‘A very fortunate thing.’
“‘Perhaps I could walk to nowhere with you,’ she said” (pg 105).
It is refreshing to finally find and read an intelligent book that holds in balance the beauty of life with the tragic, and to do so as easy as an afternoon rain rolling through the Scottish Highlands.
The prose will immerse you into a history you hope can be changed even as it is written before your very eyes. The story and the characters will start to play tricks on your mind even as the “truth” stands before you in all its glory and ugliness as Roddy’s narrative comes to an end and the documents for the trial begin.
If you read any book all year, let it be His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Once you do, you’ll immediately be a fan.
Keep reading and smiling…