His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015) Contraband (2015) 280 pp
I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr Andrew Sinclair, who since my incarceration here in Inverness has treated me with a degree of civility I in no way deserve. My life has been short and of little consequence, and I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed. It is thus for no other reason than to repay my advocate’s kindness towards me that I commit these words to paper.
So begins Roderick John Macrae’s prison journal, in which he accounts the crimes for which he has been imprisoned. The journal also serves as a bleak portrait of Roderick’s feculent, turbulent life alongside his doughtily embittered father, sister, and much younger twin siblings. The Macrae’s are crofters, and rely on the crops they farm on their allotted patch of land, an ancient arrangement passing down through generations. Amongst other things, it’s the entirely vindictive changes to that arrangement at the behest of town constable Lachlan Mackenzie that leads to the Bloody Project in question. The real interest here lies beyond the barnstorming central tale of injustice and poisonous rancour that leads to murder and ruin. That’s all compelling enough. It’s by failing to settle on any real kind of resolution, and for allowing his expertly drawn cast to speak — or not, as the case may be — for themselves where Graeme Macrae Burnet’s real achievement lies.
Roderick is clearly a little different, isolated in a cramped house and clearly ill-suited to a life of impoverished drudgery. He’s too bright to evenly accept such a permanent plight, but knows he must, and, as he relates his tale, is clearly prone to odd, unconventional behaviour, manifestations of his boredom and need to retaliate against his fate. Of course, there’s little room for such moments of unpredictable individuality in a rigorously unchanging Highland coastal settlement, which observes quiet endurance and unassuming tolerance in the face of much hardship or loss. You may well carouse with the neighbour’s wife unseen and dive amid a drunken melee at the tavern, but you don’t, for example, decide to try and save a stricken sheep (that belongs to another local, the loathed Mackenzie) and subsequently kill it to put it out of its misery. Nor do you alert a deer in order that it make its escape as the huntsmen you’re been hired by ready their aim. With such behaviour Roderick becomes as proportionately likeable to the reader as he inevitably becomes inversely unpopular with his local masters. His account, and Burnet’s canny cultivation of such an immediately empathetic figure projects the reasonable, if quirky, behaviour of a boy blighted by circumstance, hellish conditions and the moral dubiousness of some of his less edifying neighbours. And then he has Lachlan Mackenzie’s daughter, Flora, to contend with.
Flora stirs the inevitable in Roderick, who quickly sees her as the solution to an otherwise eternal purgatory of beatings from father and failing to get close to quiet contentment. He develops a clumsy and imbalanced friendship with Flora, who he puts on a pedestal he could never hope to climb. Flora is understandably lacking in excitement and brimful of hormonal vim, and fancies that he’s building a rapport that will lead to more. But she is merely marking time and hanging about with the wrong ‘un out of titillation and curiosity. She never quite takes him seriously but he is far too besotted to notice. She accurately forecasts his future, a future which will include herself, though not in any way she (and possibly he) could remotely imagine.
“It seems seems as though you are always busy doing nothing,” she replied. “The Devil will find work for your idle hands.”
“And what work would that be?” I said.
Meanwhile Roderick’s father is being slowly crushed by Lachlan Mackenzie, the newly-appointed constable, a middle-man between the serfs and the factor, who oversees the successful running of the settlement by treating its occupants like dogs. From the point of view of the distant elite, Mackenzie is the perfect bullying enforcer for such an intermediary position, and in the case of the Macraes, this spells very bad news. Mackenzie is one of a number of locals who refers to Roderick and kin as ‘the black Macraes’ and, in this case, the antipathy is mutual. There’s the question of the dead sheep, the killing of which was taken as deliberate and antagonistic. It also becomes clear that Roderick’s mother, who died in childbirth, was a large part of the local entertainment, particularly for the men, a fact to which Roderick never seems to catch onto, or else is in denial about (as he may well be about a number of far more serious matters). Roderick’s father, already emasculated and literally crippled by self-hatred as well as arduous toil, is probably far more in the know about his former wife’s exploits, and with his daughter carrying on the promiscuous local mantle, as it were, an already toxic scenario is worsened by Mackenzie slowly stripping the Macraes of their livelihood and, crucially and fatally, their land. It’s a petty regime that involves the restriction of the procurement of seaweed, for example, but soon becomes a horribly cruel demolition of an entire family. Roderick joins his father on a trip to the factor, Mackenzie’s superior, to see what might be done about Mackenzie’s despicable campaign, and to look at the ‘regulations’ that might illustrate the illegality of Mackenzie’s acts. Both are given very short and dismissive shrift.
“I’m afraid you are labouring under a misapprehension, Mr Macrae,” he said. “If you do not take the crops from your neighbour’s land, it is not because a regulation forbids it. You do not steal his crops, because it would be wrong to do so. The reason you may not ‘see’ the regulations is because there are no regulations, at least not in the way you seem to think. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe. Of course, there are regulations, but you cannot see them. The regulations exist because we all accept they exist and without them there would be anarchy. It is for the village constable to interpret these regulations and to enforce them at his discretion.”
Thereafter , as the finale of the main part of the book approaches, we see a cornered boy choose to act on behalf of his father, and the murder of not only the foul oppressor but his daughter, Flora, and young son. We are led to accept those additional deaths as sadly unfortunate and circumstantial, murders to which Roderick shows considerable regret. (Prior to Roderick’s account we are provided with character testimonies from locals, some of which are sympathetic towards Roderick, who, after all, lost his mother at a young age, a seismic tragedy that is presented by many as the moment at which Roderick may understandably have ‘turned’ and which may, to some degree, exculpate the boy.)
Following Roderick’s prison journal we get brief medical reports which hint at matters not accounted for in Roderick’s version of events; an unsubstantiated and freighted assessment of Roderick by a prejudiced surgeon who turns out to be unqualified in matters of psychiatry; an account of the trial – which, as has been pointed out elsewhere, is niftily constructed for maximum slightly-contrived dramatic courtroom effect, but which is rollicking good fun – ostensibly gleaned from ‘newspaper coverage of the day’, which offers further revelatory suggestions towards an unreliable account from the murderer; and finally a brief epilogue that includes letters from the by-now hanged man in which Roderick fails to account for vile sexually-motivated injuries attested to in court and during medical examination.
His Bloody Project manages to draw together an unputdownable mosaic of disparate strands, all reeking of period verisimilitude (despite the odd glitch here and there), and is, finally, a complex and mesmerising portrayal of a primitive and unforgiving time. If it sounds dry and dismal that’s my fault — it’s anything but. Burnet deserves great praise for aiming pretty high and nailing it; the dialogue is brilliant and the voices, Roderick’s in particular, are exquisitely realised. There is no doubt where Burnet’s sympathies lie in general but with regards to the central issues he leaves everything hanging (sorry), to our own interpretation. Judging by the discussions of the novel I’ve read, there is little consensus about what actually takes place in the book beyond a certain point, and much conjecture about the nature of and motivation for the crimes, as well as much moral unease about what stance to take regarding the central character. All of which I take as a huge plus.
I dearly hoped to see His Bloody Project on the shortlist for many reasons. For the interesting indie publisher (Contraband) which deserves recognition. For the virtually unknown author lovingly eking out his pungent, dank, harrowing world for our disquieted entertainment. But mainly because it’s both a cracking and a substantial, pointedly ambivalent read that provides much to ponder.