Hard times in the Highlands

I was embarrassingly pleased with myself for both purchasing and finishing a Man Booker nominated novel before the winner was announced.

Never mind that I failed to post my review before Paul Beatty was handed his award, because Graeme MacRae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Saraband 2015) deserves to be discussed long after the literary world has turned its gaze towards the next longlist.

MacRae Burnet begins his book by claiming to have found his 19th century relative’s letters whilst researching the Scottish Highlands. Taken aback by their literary quality, he decides to publish them. The relative, we hear, is Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae, a young lad of only 17 who has slaughtered people in cold blood in the tiny, nine-house crofter village of Culduie. The book then consists of his own account of the events, written in an Inverness prison while waiting for his trial, as well as statements from other villagers, medical experts, et cetera. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I’ll admit I was fooled—for a while at least!


Culduie today

His Bloody Project is indeed inspired by true events, though the author’s family was never involved. After a few contradictory character statements on Roddy, ranging from “a courteous and obliging young man” to “as wicked an individual as one could ever have the misfortune to meet”, aimed at setting the foundation for our interpretation of him, the bulk of the book is reserved for Roddy’s own account of the events. We learn about an imaginative, sensitive, and intelligent young man who mostly lives inside of his head. Life in Culduie is hardship after hardship, and Roddy does his unfortunate best at worsening his family’s fortunes. The land itself is barely fertile enough to yield enough crop for feeding the family: Roddy, his parents, his older sister Jetta, and a younger pair of twins. Roddy’s father is a broody man in a melancholy place lit only by Roddy’s high-spirited mother. When she dies giving birth to a new sibling, the Macraes’ descent is set. They start to be picked on in earnest by Lachlan Broad, a bully with a smile on his face. Broad is soon elected to a sheriff-like position of power, and endorsed by his superiors, assumes a fully-blown campaign to destroy the Macraes, which inevitably leads to bloodshed.

graeme-macrae-burnet-his-bloody-projectThe whole point of the book is, of course, the relativity of narratives. As Roddy gives us a moving, understated account of the events and the motives that lead to them, the reader doesn’t doubt that he is telling us the whole truth. Where An Instance of the Fingerpost, essentially a similarly structured narrative fails, His Bloody Project wholly succeeds. Perhaps a part of the reader’s desire to believe in Roddy is the consequence of our conscious or subconscious relief that someone with so little power over his own life is given the chance to choose the narrative. For His Bloody Project is first and foremost a study of of power and the repercussions of its misuse. Lachlan Broad obviously torments Roddy, but so does the pitiless reverend, Roddy’s supposed friend, who humiliates him in front of the villagers, Roddy’s father, who denies him the access to education, and even the unforgiving earth itself. As such, it’s directly related to the classic Finnish trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla (Under the North Star), also a story of powerless people, though the genre is entirely different.

This is, without a doubt, some of the best contemporary writing I have come across. Graeme MacRae Burnet writes with astonishing clarity and ease that carries the reader from one sentence to the next like the wind that rushes clouds across the grey Highlands sky. His Bloody Project is at heart a simple book: not much really happens until the very end of Roddy’s narrative. Yet we are compelled to read on by Roddy’s internal landscape that MacRae Burnet paints. The book is a compelling read


Highland crofters

—I feel like the word ‘exciting’ is not entirely appropriate in such a dark context—and the author maintains a pace throughout the novel that is just right. It’s as if the story tumbles forward effortlessly to its predetermined end. This invisibility of the author is, I would argue, a strong testament to his great skill. MacRae Burnet is also excellent at emulating the discourse of both characters in the village, their superiors, and newspapers of the time. There’s no doubt that he’s done his research thoroughly.

The Guardian wrote in October that His Bloody Project was outselling all the other Booker candidates by a wide margin. Though not a light read, I sincerely hope that many will discover this true gem of a novel.

His Bloody Project elsewhere:

The Guardian: His Bloody Project review by Graeme Macrae Burnet – murder in the Highlands
On the Man Booker Prize site
The Financial Times
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet review — crime and astonishment


Graeme MacRae Burnet (b. 1967) is a Scottish author. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (2013), earned him the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award.



Featured image source: http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com/wp- content/uploads/2015/02/scottish-highlands-abandoned-croft-2.jpg

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