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Deep in the Projects

Posted on 14th September 2016 by Sally Campbell
Although we’re trying desperately not to be too partisan at Waterstones towers, we can’t but help but feel a shiver of pride to witness ex-Waterstones bookseller Graeme Macrae Burnet forge through to the final Man Booker 2016 shortlist six for his masterful novel of criminal trial, His Bloody Project. The book has received rare praise for its almost overwhelming sense of authenticity and here, Graeme lifts the lid on his singular narrative approach.

photo: Graeme Macrae Burnet (c) Jen Cunnion

His Bloody Project is set in 1869 in the remote village of Culduie in Wester Ross. It’s an area I have been visiting since I was a child, but despite this, carrying out the research for the book was an education. The Scottish Highlands are not the rural idyll imagined (and invented) by the Victorians. It is an area scarred by clan warfare, and later by the Clearances, which drove crofting communities from land they had farmed for generations to make way for sheep and ‘sporting’ estates.

Even in the nineteenth century, the Highlands were regarded by some as a barely civilised backwater. In 1840 the Reverend John Mackenzie of Lochcarron wrote in his Church of Scotland Statistical Account: ‘The records of presbytery . . . are stained with an account of black and bloody crimes, exhibiting a picture of wildness, ferocity and gross indulgence, consistent only with a state of savagism.’ Even those accounts that are more sympathetic tend to portray the crofters as stoical victims who are somehow ennobled by their suffering.

The challenge in writing a novel against this background was to avoid such reductive stereotypes: to try to create characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad; characters with recognisable human emotions and flaws.

The protagonist, Roddy Macrae, may be the son of a nineteenth-century crofter, but he is first and foremost a seventeen-year-old boy. He’s at the moment in life when he ceases to be merely a son and a brother – a child – but is becoming an individual in his own right. He is subject to the same familial antagonisms, lusts, and the desire to break free of his surroundings, that any self-respecting teenager experiences. Certainly he is neither a savage nor particularly noble.

The reader knows from the beginning of the novel that Roddy has committed a dreadful act of violence. The challenge for me, as a writer, was not only to make Roddy’s account of his actions feel authentic, but to try to make the reader experience the world through Roddy’s eyes. More than anything else I wanted the reader to be rooting for Roddy, despite what he may or may not have done.

It is also important, however, that any empathy an individual reader might feel towards Roddy is complicated by the alternative viewpoints provided by the other voices in the novel: and these are supplied by the various witness statements and by the memoir of the psychiatrist, James Bruce Thomson. No definitive version of the events is provided. All accounts are partial. It is left for the reader to make up his or her own mind about Roddy’s motives and about his state of mind when he committed his crimes.

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