This work reminds me of John B Keane’s masterpiece The Field, a rural community deftly recreated; the mistrust of outsiders, the rivalry with neighbouring towns and communities and an innate sense of us vs them. The story centres around a brutal, repulsive set of murders in a small farming village, carried out by Roderick Macrae.
The first half of the book is a “memoir” from the accused himself, and the second half is “transcripts of the trial” and “national news coverage” of the sensational crime. I felt that this was an effective way to show Roderick to be either deliberately lying or unintentionally unreliable or misleading in various parts of his narrative, and made me question the validity of his version of events and the subsequent truthfulness of his plea at trial.
The story challenged me to examine what insanity is and if someone who is insane can recognise themselves as such. Is evil an inherent moral flaw, as the minister in the village believes? Is the loss of a positive and loving influence in ones life enough to send one into a spiralling path of depravity and madness? What is soundness of mind, is it something that can be accurately measured and pronounced before the world?
This is part historical fiction mentioning a real pioneer in the field of psychotherapy a Doctor James Tompson. With the inclusion of this character Graeme has brought into play the class differences which were thought to feature heavily in the creation of the “criminal class”. Such beliefs are now outdated and distasteful but are an accurate representation of the society in which this novel is set. There’s an obvious split and mistrust between the local crofters and spalpins and those in positions of power. Both view the other as almost a different species, and in my mind they almost mirror the divide in current day global politics with ‘rural conservatives’ and ‘urban liberals’, both looking at the other group as very “other”.
Burnet has also captured admirably the rather savage and cruel treatment of women in the 1800s, rape is just seen as an inevitable thing that happens, dying in childbirth is framed in terms of dying to atone for the families sins and pregnancy borne of wedlock brings intense shame upon a family. For me it really brings to life the dour, oppressive Presbyterian/religious atmosphere that permeated the rural communities of Britain and Ireland.
The writing flows well and is easy to engage with and absorb, but some of the characters are very two dimensional in my eyes. To name but one the defense attorney Sinclair (although there is a letter from him included in the second half) could have done with more beefing up and in my opinion an exploration of his very ‘modern’ beliefs would have been interesting. My favourite character was Kenny Smoke. He’s a villager and feminist of sorts; a fair man with an innate sense of right and wrong and he stands out as a subtly nuanced and believable character.
I’d give this a 3.5/5 rating, as I certainly enjoyed this and raced through the book, but it lacks a truly gripping protagonist. A lover of true crime and historical fiction could do worse than to wake up to a gift of this from Santa!