It seems that this is the kind of book that people either love or fucking hate, at least judging by the reviews floating around online.
I’d had it on my to-read list for quite some time – I remember being interested when it was published, but wanted to give the fanfare a bit of time to die down – and I’m glad I did, as I went in with no real expectations.
Thankfully, I thought it was a great read. A nice one? No, not really. But good at what it does. It’s not a work that’s easy to like – there is a distinct feeling of trepidation, of uncertain ground for the reader – but it is a work that’s worth the journey.
The tale is a simple one: a young man commits a terrible crime, and we’re presented with both documents supporting the legal process following same, and a jail-cell record, purportedly written by the criminal. There is lavish detail throughout, loving attention paid to both viscera and village, though we’re never left knowing whether what we’re reading – on either side of the law – is correct. There’s a definite question that never leaves one’s mind while progressing through the papers: who is right, if anyone? Why has this happened? How has this happened? And who is full of shit?
Inside all of those questions, from all these supporting documents, a compelling picture of a very particular time in Scottish history is formed. This is social commentary disguised as a murder tale, and it certainly sparked an interest in the subject that I didn’t know I had.
I can see how people would think that creating a range of documentary ephemera to prop up the whole “did he do it?” story could be a bit of a cop-out. And I can imagine that expecting, y’know, a story and receiving a bunch of postmortem reports, interviews and a purported testament might well be considered a bit weak in lieu of a story that tells itself without the aid of such props. But for me, it all worked to the benefit of the tale: combining a subtler narrative about tenant farmers, Highland clearances, justice, socioeconomic status, religion and the role of the misfit in the community, however small, in the name of telling the story of a particularly gory afternoon.
It could be that my recently read books have included a couple of other novels in this vein – Fowles’ A Maggot and Wilson’s Malefice – that I found this so enjoyable. Certainly, I had no difficulty falling into the world Burnet created, no matter how despicable (or is that understandable?) the bloodletting may be.
A project, indeed.