I had to Google the Booker Prize shortlist that saw Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel His Bloody Project competing for the prize. It was way back in 2016, which is crazy. It feels as though I only read that a couple of years ago. I definitely wanted Burnet to win but that’s mostly because it was the only one that I’d read. That doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve it. His Bloody Project was an absolute masterpiece in the way that it blended fact and fiction. I knew that this was a writer that I wanted to read in the future. So, I ordered a copy of his next book as soon as it was possible. I knew that it was going to be something big. But could it possibly be as good as his last book?
It takes a very accomplished author to successfully blend fact and fiction without it seeming gimmicky. In His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet proved that he was the kind of author who could make it work. His latest novel takes that idea even further. Not only is the fictional tale being presented as fact but he weaves in real-world figures to back it up. Each historical reference has been carefully chosen to add credence to the non-fiction style the book adopts. This makes the reading experience a complex and engaging one. It is up to the reader to decide what is and isn’t real. It is for them to decide what is true and what isn’t. I can imagine that plenty of readers will turn to Google as soon as they’ve finished reading to find out if certain people exist or not. This is all down to the strength of his writing.
The narrative is presented as a non-fiction book delving into the history of a long-forgotten (and fictional) psychotherapist Arthur Collins Braithwaite. Braithwaite was a contemporary of people like R D Laing and was a very controversial figure. His theories were all over the place and his ego prevented him from taking advice from anyone. Burnet’s novel is split between a fictional biography of Braithwaite and a series of notebooks that he was sent. The journals were sent to him by a Mr Martin Grey and were written by his cousin, a former patient of Braithwaite. She first met with the therapist after her sister’s suicide because she believe that Braithwaite may have played a role in it. She decides to go undercover and invents an alter ego for herself. But what does she discover about the figure and what kind of picture does it pain when combined with Braithwaite’s own past?
The notebooks from the unnamed young woman are presented in full and, before we even get to the main body of the novel, the preface begins with an admission of inaccuracies. Certain places have been misnamed in the journals and the geography doesn’t make complete sense. That means we are already being conditioned to question everything that we read. Can we trust her as a narrator and believe what she is saying? The fact that her behaviour becomes more and more erratic over time only makes it harder to trust what we’re reading. At the same time, the biography that runs alongside it presents the image of a troubled mind. Is Braithwaite really the type of person who should be holding council over anyone’s mental health? In his youth, Burnet had an interest in reading psychiatric case studies and you can see that he is having a lot of fun turning that format on its head. Instead of getting the therapist’s insight into the patient, the tables are turned.
From the outset, our unnamed female narrator is presented as a prim and proper girl from a wealthy family. She seems to exhibit perfectly normal behaviour for a twenty-something girl of that time. However, as we continue reading her words, it becomes clear that there is something beneath the surface. Is she simply playing a role or is there something deeper going on? It initially seems as though the power balance has merely shifted from doctor to patient but we are quickly left wondering who is actually in control here. It’s a fascinating and engaging reading experience, which is exactly what Burnet wanted. He has always said that he enjoys presenting his fiction with a strong sense of reality and this is a great example of that working successfully. You not only want to believe this happened but find it difficult to remember it didn’t.
This is metafiction on a whole new level and offers a new kind of engagement. One in which a reader can become fully immersed in a fictional world. Yes, we’ve all been immersed in what we’ve read before but there’s always that barrier. We always know that the novel we’re reading isn’t real. Burnet adds so much detail and realism to his work that these characters could easily be real. You could be reading history. The lines between fact and fiction are blurred so extremely and so expertly. There are so many fictional layers in this novel that you start to question everything. Not only do we have the fictional journal writer and her fictional therapist but there’s the fictional version of Burnet writing the biography. I mean, can we even be sure that the real Graeme Macrae Burnet is real anymore?
What we can trust is that Case Study is another masterpiece. Unlike His Bloody Project, there is humour here that brings a slightly lighter tone to the proceedings. It feels more fun and free than his previous work. The novel is an interesting look back to the 1960s counterculture thanks to the people Braithwaite interacts with. Any reader willing to get on board with the concept will enjoy a rich reading experience. It won’t appeal to anyone looking for everything to be neatly wrapped up at the end or who needs an answer to everything. However, it could force you to question everything you think you know about the novel form and your overall sense of self. It’s an absolutely astounding novel and is unlike anything I’ve read before.