Gig Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet in Bath

Having read His Bloody Project last weekend (you may read my review here) I availed myself of the opportunity to meet the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, at Toppings in Bath on Monday. Graeme talked about all three of his books including his latest, The Accident on the A35, which I purchased at the event. I look forward to reading and reviewing it in the coming weeks.

A35 is a sequel to Graeme’s debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both are set in the unremarkable, small French town of Saint-Louis on the Swiss French border. They were inspired by a visit to the town on which Saint-Louis is based a decade before Adèle was written. The cafe at their centre exists and has not changed in that time – Graeme returned as part of his research for A35 and told us even the menu has remained the same.

All three of Graeme’s books share a playfulness of form. They are written as if true with Adèle and A35 presented as translations. When Adèle was released a bookseller sold it to customers as a newly discovered French work that Graeme had translated into English, as is claimed on the fly page. He felt somewhat hoodwinked on discovering this was untrue. Of course, all works of fiction are untrue. Readers want to believe that stories could be real, to enter their fictional world.

The remote, mundane places Graeme writes about enable a feeling of claustrophobia to be explored. The central characters are young men who consider life to be better elsewhere. Living in a backwater, where middle aged residents treat them as children and will ask after their parents, Graeme prefers not to dwell on the key event – a death. He focuses instead on the effect of living where they do on the characters psyches and what goes on in their heads. The drama is the development of these young men, not who did the killing.

The structures employed are not new, they existed in 19th century fiction. By including documents and changing points of view it is possible to employ unreliable narrators. Graeme spoke of the apparatus of truth, that everyone is an unreliable narrator. Memory is partial, biased and selective. The reader must consider for themselves what is actually happening.

A member of the audience asked Graeme about the effect of his Booker Prize shortlisting. His Bloody Project was rejected many times before being picked up by Saraband, a small Scottish independent publisher. The initial print run was 1000 copies which were selling slowly until the Booker longlist was announced. From there Graeme’s life as a writer changed. He did point out that not all listed books do so well – his outsold even the eventual winner. It gained exposure for being with a small publisher, and a crime novel on the Booker list, although Saraband shouldered the risk in deciding how many copies to reprint. Sales of a book depend so much on visibility, on whether Waterstones will stock, on interest in foreign rights. The Booker Prize listing helps by putting books on tables at the front of shops for a time. Graeme is happy that His Bloody Project continues to sell. With digital and overseas markets he has recently found an agent to deal with the complexities of such deals.

Another audience member asked how he wrote his young protagonists, if he drew on personal experience. Graeme does not have children but as a reader has a view on what is engaging. He did not wish to write historical novels, or to present his protagonists as victims. He understands that seventeen year old boys, in whatever era or place, will be developing an interest in sex and pushing boundaries. The structure of his novels was fun to write but the vividness of the setting and making characters relatable adds the depth.

Graeme shared a few anecdotes: Adèle is currently being translated into French, he is unsure how that will work as it is already presented as a translation; His Bloody Project includes a glossary of Highland words which provide a challenge for any translator; he received an email from a resident of the small town on which Saint-Louis is based. Worried he had caused offence with his portrayal he was relieved to be told he had captured it perfectly. Graeme pointed out that from the point of view of his seventeen year old character he had to present the town negatively as the boy was eager to escape.

Asked if there were any plans for film or TV adaptations we were told rights had been sold but who knew if this would be taken any further. Graeme would be happy to wait a few years for this to happen as such things change readers perceptions of what a story should be.

When I presented my copies of his books for signing I was pleased to discover Graeme is as friendly as this frank and open discussion suggested. I am delighted with the inscriptions he provided, including these very appropriate stamps.




Book Review: His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. A young man by the name of Roderick Macrae is arrested and stands trial for the crimes. He readily admits that he carried out the attacks but shows no remorse. All that stands between him and the gallows is the question of his sanity.

The unusual structure of the book is inspired. In the preface the author talks of discovering documents from the case while researching his own family history. He then reproduces witness statements from those who had known Roddy throughout his life, taken soon after the killings. There follows an account written by the accused at the behest of his advocate, a sympathetic and forward thinking man who, unlike many at the time, does not appear to regard the Highlanders as a lesser species.

Roddy was born and raised in the township of Culchie, a settlement of nine dwellings in the far north west of Scotland, whose occupants eked out a living working the crofts adjacent to their homes. As a child he attended church and school at neighbouring Camusterrach. Further along the road was Applecross where an Inn and Big House provided for Lord Middleton who owned the land. These and the surrounding hills were as far as Roddy had ever travelled.

The nine dwellings in Culchie varied in style and comfort. Roddy’s was crudely built and housed animals as well as the family. His mother had died in childbirth a year previously and this had badly affected those remaining. Despite his academic ability, Roddy was required to leave school and work on the land as soon as was allowed. His elder sister took their mother’s place at home, including caring for the younger siblings. Their father believed that all transgressions could be dealt with by viciously beating the offender.

Roddy’s account details his upbringing and events that lead to his decision to kill. The family’s life is hard, made moreso by a neighbour who harbours a grudge. When a member of this family is granted a position of authority by those tasked with managing Lord Middleton’s estate, they use it to undermine what little autonomy the Macrae’s have retained.

Following Roddy’s account there are short medical reports written by doctors who examine the young man while he is incarcerated at Inverness Gaol. Although there are scientific truths in many of their observations, they highlight the low opinion held at the time of those who lived in poverty, especially those who turned to crime. The doctors believe themselves not just superior but born that way. They view the harsh living conditions of the Highlanders as all they deserve.

The account of the trial makes up the remainder of the book. As with all good trials, this throws some doubt into the narrative that has thus far been built. Detail is added as to how Roddy was viewed locally. Incidents recounted by witnesses introduce uncertainty as to his motivations.

The epilogue is short but shows how reporting of heinous crimes has always been sensationalised with little regard for the truth. The story is a tragedy, but for more than just the murders.

It is a rare treat to come across a book that is so intriguing and compelling. It explores complex issues yet is entirely accessible. There is much to ponder around how difficult it is to puncture individual and societal preconceptions. A riveting story that I recommend you read.

His Bloody Project is published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband.