Author – Graeme Macrae Burnet
Published – 2015
Genre – Historical crime fiction
I bought this book because it’s not often that something shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize appeals to me, but billed as a historical thriller / crime novel it fitted in with my regular reading choices.
The story is set in a remote hamlet in the Scottish Highlands where the inhabitants work their crofts under the control of the local Laird in a hand-to-mouth state of poverty. The book itself purports to be the first publication of the memoir of seventeen-year-old Roddy Macrae, written while he was awaiting trial, as well as supporting documents including extracts of newspaper coverage of the trial itself.
There seems to be no doubt that Roddy has carried out the attacks of which he has been accused; his writing attempts to trace the course of events that led him to the crimes which he declared himself guilty of. What transpires is an account of an impoverished life where there is little hope for escape. His family’s fortunes take a turn for the worse after his mother dies and when a local bully takes on the role of Constable within the community his father seems to be singled out for ill-treatment.
The book seems to pose lots of question and doesn’t necessarily provide answers. I’m never keen on ambiguity – I am always convinced that the author knows the ‘answer’ and is leaving me to figure it out, and I worry that I’ve not reached the right conclusion. From the beginning we only know who one victim of the attack is and it’s quite late in the story that we find who the others are. The narrators can be unreliable, some obviously so, others less explicit. There are a few incidents that are hinted at and never made clear and I was unsure about their relevance. And then there’s the ending.
I found the book quite enjoyable although I would say the telling of it was nothing new. There was something about the period in which it is set and the slow unfolding of the events in advance of a trial that reminded me of Burial Rites. But it lacked the beautiful writing of Hannah Kent. The use of ‘documents’ and reports to provide different perspectives isn’t new either, although statements during trials perhaps appear less often. Neither did it feel to me that it was shining a light on some of the issues it touched on – poverty of those working on the land, inequality, mental health, justice – than you might read in any similar novel set in the period. Perhaps it is the combination of these that has made this book stand out to the judges. It certainly lacked some of the tension and thrills I might have expected.
I did go in search of ‘what is the Man Booker Prize awarded for?’. The official description is “a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK.” as well as “in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK.” And there we have it ‘in the opinion the judges’ – more a subjective criteria and dependant on who is judging.
Perhaps elevating this book to the Booker shortlist has made me overly critical. Have you read this or any others on the list? What did you think?