The book’s title is your red flag: is it a blood-covered piece of work or, a cursed work? If it is the first, who spilled the blood and why? If it is the latter, is the killer cursed by their crimes or were they predestined to commit these crimes? And the project itself, who started it and why?
Author Graeme Macrea Burnet was born in Kilmarnock in Scotland and lives in Glasgow. The book he wrote was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. His blog is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.
The subtitle is “documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” and that might make you believe it is a work of true crime but it is fiction. However, it feels awfully real.
The book’s set up is well done. You read the story, reports, follow the defense as they set out to make a defense strategy, and follow the trial.
We are in the 1869, in the Scottish Highlands, in the township of Culduie. It is the oppressive, small type of community where conforming, accepting, and only inwardly condemning are the only lifestyles the people know. Hardship too will make sure they return to the fold. The people in the small township do not own their land, their croft, so they are in a perpetual struggle with those in power.
Roderick John Macrae, our main character, is a teen. He has a beloved sister Jetta and two twin siblings. They do not play a huge role in the book. His sister does and it isn’t until the end that you realize how big her role was in the story. Their mother died in childbirth about a year before the story unfolds. In the book, some speculate that she was weak. Why else would she die in childbirth? The mother was a beloved member of the community.
After the mother died, Jetta is forced to take over her mother’s duties. Jetta is suddenly housekeeper, cook, and surrogate mother to twins and to Roderick, and most frighteningly at her father’s insistence she now dresses in widows black. The transformation is visible in her posture. She is now hunched over. But the transformation also changes her spiritually. “It was at this time that Father decreed that Jetta should sleep in the back chamber with him as she was now a woman and merited a degree of privacy from her siblings.” When I read this the picture that popped up in my head screamed inappropriate leaning towards abuse instead of privacy. But that’s just me. What did it do to Roderick?
His relationship with his father isn’t the best. Life isn’t easy, Roderick is needed to work on the land, and being solely responsible for so many children as a widower leaves psychological scars. And those scars run deeper than you think. There is great animosity with one family in particular, the Mackenzies, but inwardly condemning is the only option as they don’t own their croft. If you wish to learn more about the crofting system, click here.
At the time that Jetta and Roderick still went to school, she often spoke for him as he preferred not to. He shielded Jetta from bullies and now and then gave an answer in class. Then one day, Roderick finally acknowledged to himself that he was more than a bundle of muscles. He was clever and that meant he had options other than working the land. One of his teacher even visited his father to discuss those options however, conforming was what was expected of Roderick. And he did until something broke inside of him.
We meet his friends, the possible love of his life, and her family. She is the daughter of Lachlan Mackenzie, the man who makes Roderick’s father’s life more difficult than it already is. And one day Mackenzie crosses a boundary. A boundary that Roderick witnesses and it scars him. Roderick sees Jetta’s rape. It cannot be consensual sex if you factor in that Lachlan Mackenzie was married with children and served as constable. The power balance shifts drastically to the point where she feels she cannot say no. We are made to believe that Jetta becomes pregnant as her father explodes one day and beats her up. He yanks her head back, slams her faces into the table, and tells her she cannot hide her condition from him by swaddling herself in multiple layers of clothing. He even calls her a whore. It isn’t clear whether the child is Mackenzie’s as I still fear she had to take over her mom’s place in her father’s bed too. But that night, Jetta steps out of her life after one last talk to her brother Roderick.
Roderick’s mind is trying to deal with grief. Despite not speaking about the loss of his mother he thinks of her. There was a time he saw his parents happy together and he wanted that too, for Jetta and for himself. But after he saw his sister forced into motherhood, witnessed her abuse, and knows she left earth, all accumulates in his mind as one hopeless mixture he cannot shake. And sadly, the solution he finally comes up with turns deadly for three people.
The book describes the story as it unfolds but also includes Roderick’s own version. Roderick, who does not deny what he has done and is awaiting trial, gets pressured by his defense attorney to write down his side of the story. It is a project that keeps him busy during the days in jail. The defense attorney is desperately seeking for more answers. He makes it his project to uncover the unsaid, the unspoken, and even travels to Culduie. Searching for background information, talking to the people in the township he sees different aspects of Roderick and his family. He seeks the fine-tuning of details concerning Roderick’s state of mind. He needs perspective as he sadly gets none from Roderick’s father.
The father does take the stand and it is painful to read his statement. It lacks all emotion, feelings, it is filled with bitterness, cropped-up anger, and even disdain. He denies Jetta existed. He doesn’t even look at his son when he walks out of court.
The written story, Roderick’s project, becomes part of the trial documents. We learn what others think about it, how they perceive a defendant’s word, and how sane they think Roderick is to write down what he did. The witnesses paint a completer picture of the crofting system, the attitude of Lachlan Mackenzie, the altercations between the families, and the affect his mom’s death had on the entire family. As always, it comes down to what you wish to believe. But one thing is undeniable, the murder of one of the three victims is symbolic for the unraveling of that bit of frail sanity Roderick had. No doubt that among all the thoughts Roderick had when he brought down his flaughter (a spade with a triangular blade, the murder weapon) the one most pressing on his mind was Jetta. The display of the victim’s body mimicks Jetta’s when he walked in on her rape.
His Bloody Project isn’t a typical murder mystery. It runs in a different pace and events lack clarity until you find more details in the trial documents or, hear explanations during the witness’ statements in court. The author also makes no attempt to correct the reader when it is obvious that their minds might run into completely opposite directions than originally planned. It leaves you unsettled wishing for easy answers. But then you remember the defense attorney and how incredibly difficult his project was: a fight against the government to make sure there’s no abuse of power, a fight with themselves as they must be prepared to defend everyone and not just the people they like, and worse, they need to work with what little they had.
His Bloody Project is highly recommended reading. Graeme Macrea Burnet is now on my author list.
Note: other book reviews can be found here.