‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace

91uzpBVPonLA lyrical beauty of a novel, Jim Crace’s meditation on a quintessentially medieval rural England is elegiac yet powerful and politically resonant in today’s climate.

Social change is thrust upon a small isolated hamlet, two days ride from its nearest village, a place so insignificant that no church dominates its laneways. The arrival of a trio of outsiders is a catalyst to the complete breakdown within seven days of a way-of-life little changed in generations. In erecting four rough and ready walls as a shelter and lighting a fire on common ground, custom and law gives the strangers the right to stay.

Not that are particularly welcome – their arrival coincides with another fire – that of the dovecote and stables of Master Kent, the young, kindly lord of the manor.

Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, deduces who is to blame for that particular inferno. But as an outsider himself, resident only for 10 or so years, he keeps his views to himself. It’s not done apportioning blame on neighbours within such a close-knit community. The new arrivals are duly accused for the fire with the two men clapped in the stocks, the young woman shorn of hair.

Just seven days later, having celebrated the harvesting of the barley, Kent finds himself replaced as the local lord by a superior blood claim to his title by the cruel and ambitious Master Jordan; plans to replace the cropping of the land with the more economical farming of sheep are drawn up; one of the men clapped in the stocks is dead; accusations of witchcraft and murder see Jordan oversee trials by torture: superstitions and suspicion undermine community and family ties and, fearful of repercussions from Jordan and his henchmen, the population has fled, the hamlet abandoned. As the novel draws to its close, only Walter remains. Yet, in spite of having gained the trust of the new lord, he himself has no intention of staying.

Harvest is beautifully written. In spite of the level of events unfolding, this is no breathless potboiler. Crace is meticulous in his wording and phrasing – in its intimacy, his love of words and language is deeply apparent. He succeeds in transporting his reader to the hedgerows of the country lanes, the final evening celebrations of the harvest, the inhumanity of the stocks. It’s a paean to its way-of-life and the time when the sheaf is giving way to sheep, where subsistence agriculture was replaced by profitable wool production: the peasant farmers and communities were dispossessed and displaced. A contemporary resonance.

Jim Crace’s reportedly last novel was awarded the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, but lost out to New Zealander Eleanor Catton and The Luminaries.

 

 

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‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer

9780349139005-uk-300“I will design you a life. Not a mere house to live in, but a whole way of life.” So states modernist German architect Rainer von Abt to the recently married Landauers, a wealthy couple living in the recently independent Czechoslovakia.

The minimalist Landauer house of glass and concrete causes a sensation in the tessellated, crenellated decorative tastes of the former Habsburg Empire. And for ten years, Viktor and Liesel enjoy von Abt’s promise: scintillating conversation along with the attention and company of artists, writers, musicians (both Czech and German). With its lack of ornamental detraction, Abt’s vision provides the growing family with an uninterrupted view to the world beyond. But, with rise of Nazism and fascism across Europe, it’s not a view Viktor welcomes.

Seeing the writing on the wall and ignoring the ‘it’ll soon blow over’ opinions around him, Viktor, as a Jew, transfers the bulk of his wealth and flees (with his family) firstly to neutral Switzerland before heading to the States via Cuba. He is one of the lucky ones.

But Simon Mawer’s novel is, ultimately, not the story of the Landauer family nor is it a telling of the Holocaust. The star of this particular tale is the building itself, a building sitting imperiously on a (large) suburban block with views over the unnamed Město (Czech for ‘town’) and its medieval castle.

As the Landauers depart, so German research scientists move in: post war under the Communist regime it’s a children physiotherapy gymnasium until, finally, it becomes a museum. Turning full circle, an ageing Liesel Landor (with an Americanised surname) returns, in 1968, to attend the official launch. The house is much changed having been damaged during the war along with general neglect. But Liesl, in spite of her blindness, knows every inch of her former beloved home.

In 1929, Fritz and Greta Tugendhat commissioned renowned German modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design and build them a home in the wealthy neighbourhood of Černá Pole in Brno in then Czechoslovakia. Today, it is regarded as one of the pioneering prototypes of modern European architecture and, after many uses, was repaired and opened as a museum in 2012. It had ceased to be a family home following the departure of the Tugendhats as a result of the Munich Accord in 1938.

Simon Mawer’s fascinating story is a fictional account of a house inspired by the Villa Tugendhat. Characters come and go but Liesel, her best friend Hana and the caretaker, Lanik, remain constant. It is they who hold the human narrative of the house through the 60 years of the novel. Yet all the characters interact with and within the house itself – with its oversized plate glass windows, history takes place inside the glass room not outside.

Like its architecture, The Glass Room loses the artifice of the time – Viktor is a proponent of innovation and progress. Yet he struggles with the thoroughly modern Hana and her outspoken sexual frankness and flirtatiousness – as does her wartime lover, Hauptsturmführer Stahl, the head scientist at the Landauer House.

The Glass Room is, in the first instance, the story of an evolving marriage – that of Viktor and Liesel. But it’s also about relationships over the different time zones and events – Liesel and Hana, Viktor and Katalin, Hana and Stahl, Hana and Zdenka, Zdenka and Tomas (the latter two taking place in the Communist-era 1960s). And centre stage is that house, a symbol of the new world post World War 1 but which falls into decay with liberation from German control by the Russian army.

Towards the end, it does become a little ‘safe’ and comfortable – and Mawer’s narrative relies a little too much on coincidence and chance. But these are minor caveats. The Glass Room is a beautifully written novel of considerable power about human frailty and strength.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, The Glass Room had the misfortune of competing against the unstoppable Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

Booker_Levy-xlarge_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqrnykcIhNBTQGIhNzmTaT-bRxN3k0gyKMaHVGwcklXbAIn spite of a (mostly) semi-desolate, southern Spanish location, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is a story of interiors and the claustrophobic confines of home and family. As Sofia looks to discover the cause of her mother’s multitude of illnesses at the clinic beside the Mediterranean, so she herself discovers more about herself and the ties that bind her to Rose and her absent, Greek father.

It’s an enigmatic novel. The relatively straightforward narrative of Sofia and Rose arriving at the Spanish seaside village (almost deserted of tourists due to a plague of jellyfish) looking for a diagnosis at Gomez’s controversial clinic for Rose’s inability to walk is interspersed with streams of symbolic fancy and daydreams.

A PhD exploring memory following a first class honours degree in anthropology lies abandoned as Sofia drifts through life. Meeting local student Juan followed by German seamstress Ingrid unleashes a new sexual longing in Sofia, a longing repressed by the chains of her mother’s incessant demands and needs.

A barista at a local café in London, Sofia’s home is the storeroom. Visiting her estranged father and new family in Athens, she sleeps in the spare room, a windowless stockroom. Leaving the door of the rented Spanish villa unlocked may create an illusion of freedom, but her options are closed. Gomez may or may not be a quack but can he release Sofia from Rose?

Hot Milk was the bookies favourite to win the 2016 Booker Prize, variously described as ‘hypnotic’, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘gorgeous’. I do not agree.

Levy’s poetic writing is at times obscure and pretentious, the novel’s equivalent of an art house film’s imbroglio of impenetrable (or just plain annoying) symbolism (did we really need the clinic to be built from marble so that it resembles “a spectral, solitary breast”?). Rose is one of the most unlikeable of all characters – a litany of dismissive complaints about the weather, the food, the people in the early stages of the narrative is a stereotype of the British abroad. And whilst there is, initially, a level of downtrodden sympathy for Sofia and her guilt, she does little to help herself in the course of the, thankfully, short novel.

Levy’s novel lost out to the first American to win the Booker Prize, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘The Clothes On Their Backs’ by Linda Grant

3992216There’s a simplicity and fluidity to Linda Grant’s fourth novel that imbues a slightly odd voyeurism – that as the reader, we are sitting watching events unfold rather reading about them, such is the power of her imagery and storytelling. But there’s nothing simple about her themes, that of identity and sense of belonging as Vivien Kovacs, daughter of post-war Hungarian Jewish refugees, tries to find her way in 1970s London.

Viven’s parents fled Budapest immediately before the war: so grateful to be taken in they barely disturb the air they breathe. They avoid contact with the outside world wherever possible and refuse to look back on their history – even with their only daughter, who is not made aware of the family religion until her teenage years.

It’s a lonely life for Vivien and much of the young girl’s discovery of the real world outside the Marylebone apartment is through the (mostly) ageing tenants of Benson Court – including the losing of her virginity at 17 to an artist living immediately below her parents.

But there is a family secret – Sandor Kovacs, the father’s older brother. He’s a persona non grata to Ervin and Berta, who go to great lengths to deny any contact or even mention his name: it’s not until her late teens that Vivien knows for certain she has an uncle and that he’s in London.

But there again, much of The Clothes On Their Backs is constructed on secrets, lies and altered truths. It’s through her uncle that Vivien finds out about her family history and the secrets her own father has kept from both his wife and his daughter. And it is this that fans the feud between the two brothers who are like chalk and cheese. But Vivien herself has taken on a different persona to secure this knowledge.

With the rise of the racist National Front movement unfolding in the background (potentially mirroring the political change in Europe in 1939/40 that so deeply impacted on the Kovacs brothers), Vivien comes to understand a little more about herself.

Sandor was imprisoned for 14 years as a slum landlord responsible for extortion and violence towards his tenants living in squalid living conditions – part of the reason why Ervin refuses to have any dealings with the only surviving member of his family. But it is counterbalanced by Sandor’s incarceration in the ‘Labour Army’ during the war, presenting a different side of Vivien’s uncle.

The Clothes On Their Backs is a complex novel, elegant and insightful, quietly and perceptively exploring loss, love, family ties and family feuds.

Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, Grant lost out to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.

‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay

9780099593690A Danish journalist is chasing down a sex scandal story involving a high-ranking government official: a young Frenchman holidays alone in Cyprus. All That Man Is – a pan-European series of nine short stories or a cohesive, singular insight into different strands of ‘maledom’? The jury is out but its shortlisting for the 2016 Booker Prize suggests it’s officially accepted into the latter category.

Personally, I err towards the former. And, as with any compendium of short stories, I felt slightly cheated in its reading. Twenty or so pages per narrative leave little in terms of any sense of significant depth of character or situation. Yet, to be fair, David Szalay, in those few pages and through his quick sketches, generally portrays more about his characters’ emotional limitations than some writers achieve in 300+ pages.

Nine stories, nine variously aged men hailing from different European countries – with each protagonist on a journey, actual as well as metaphorical. Bookending the book are two British characters. 17 year-old Simon is inter-railing round Europe with a friend before their first year at Oxford: his grandfather, a retired diplomat, is spending time at the family holiday home in Italy. Sandwiched between is a series of stories that include a Russian billionaire looking to commit suicide, a Hungarian bodyguard on a job in London and a Belgian philologist delivering a luxury car to a buyer in Krakow.

The protagonists are diverse but there exists a level of homogeneity, a melancholic undercurrent of yearning for something almost intangible or beyond their grasp. No matter how ostensibly different they are, their concerns appear to be similarly mordant and narrow.

Inevitably, with nine separate (linked?) narratives to choose from, some are stronger/more appealing than others. The Danish journalist is a particularly strong tale as we journey through the different stages of man (each man is progressively approximately seven years older than his predecessor) – the deputy editor of Scandinavia’s biggest selling newspaper, Kristian is surprisingly humane towards his ‘victim.’ And the final story, of Tony slowly recovering from a heart attack, listening to a young girl sing in a café whilst he ponders on the inscription Amemus eterna et non peritura (Let us love that which is eternal and not what is transient), seen earlier that morning at Pomposa Abbey, is a gentle, allegoric narrative that packs a punch not initially obvious.

Less interesting were the earlier, youthful stories – Simon and his yearning for a classmate back in England, the Hungarian bodyguard finding himself outside the Park Lane Hilton in the early hours of the morning on too many occasions.

All That Man Is was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize but lost out to the first American to win the award, Paul Beatty and his The Sellout.

‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar

9780241957073Not surprisingly, nine year-old Suleiman (Slooma) does not fully grasp events going on around him – not helped by the fact his wealthy parents, in order to protect him, are choosing not to tell him very much.

It’s 1979 Tripoli and ten years after the Gaddafi people’s revolution. But Libya is now closely monitored, awash with surveillance, secret police and a culture of reporting anti-revolutionary activity. Yet Suleiman’s father, Faraj, a successful businessman, is involved in clandestine activities against ‘The Guide’.

In the Country of Men is not a novel focusing on specific historical content or events – it is more an emotional journey as seen through the eyes of a nine year-old, resulting in events being frequently misunderstood or distorted. Thus, the narrow rituals of childhood are elevated in importance – games in the street with friends, the mood swings of his young alcoholic mother, gifts from his father’s overseas trips. Away from dusty Mulberry Street and home, events play themselves out without a great deal of impact. Until, that is, Ustath Rashid is arrested for anti-revolutionary sentiments. Next-door neighbours and the father of Slooma’s best friend, Kereem, his arrest sends events into a tailspin.

A narrative of love and betrayal, In the Country of Men is a lyrical yet unsentimental portrait of both a family and a country. Betrayal runs rampant throughout – Gaddafi’s to Libya, Faraj to his son, Slooma himself to both his parents as well as Kereem. But below the surface is the tenderness and confusion of love.

Suleiman makes mistakes in his desperate need for the love of his father. Forced into a marriage at 14, Slooma’s mother finds solace in illegal schnapps: like Scheherazade, she tells stories of her life and betrayal by her family to her son long into the night. But, with Faraj’s arrest, so a deep love for her husband comes to the fore. It is only years later, with Suleiman a 24 year-old living in Egypt, that the tragic sadness of events begin to fall into place. And by then it is mostly too late.

Born in New York in 1970 of Libyan parents, Hisham Matar returned to live in Tripoli with his parents when he was three years old. His family was forced to flee to Egypt just six years later due to political persecution. Matar’s father disappeared in 1990 and has been missing ever since. In the Country of Men, his debut novel, may be a fiction, but it is very much a story of the heart.

Shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize, London-based Hisham Matar, with his debut novel, lost out to Kiran Desai and The Inheritance of Loss.

 

‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson

9781408808870Having read English at Cambridge under F. R. Leavis and taught the subject at Selwyn College, Cambridge, you just know anything written by Howard Jacobson will not fall under ‘light read.’ But what you may not be prepared for is the wit, irony and warmth alongside the satire and intelligence. Even on a second reading, The Finkler Question made me laugh out loud.

Jacobson is tackling one mighty difficult and potentially contentious issue in The Finkler Question – that of Jewish identity alongside male friendship.

It is through the friendship of three men – former schoolmates Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler and their teacher, Libor Sevcik – that Jacobson explores his subject, an exploration that is at once brilliantly funny yet with a deep melancholic sense of loss and longing.

Through the three men, opinions and opposing philosophies of what exactly is Jewish identity are voiced, discussed and debated – from the strident, anti-Zionist, Israeli-hating Finkler through to the ‘convert’ that is Treslove, more orthodox than any of his friends as he reads 12th century Maimonides on the reasoning for circumcision or demands answers to his questions of, how he sees it, the innate ‘Jewish’ cleverness of the use language. A 90 year-old Czech, Libor sits somewhere between the two men.

A former BBC radio producer (a minor position – an early morning arts programme on Radio 3), Treslove is a melancholic lost soul – a father of two (adult) boys to separate women, both of whom chose not tell him of their respective pregnancies. His great love is the great operatic tragedies. It is he who labels Jews at Finklers, having met his first Jew at school in the guise of Sam/Samuel/Shmuel/Shmueli (several identities in one…). This new word “…took away the stigma, sucked out the toxins.” A late night mugging a few yards from the BBC in Portland Place following an evening with Sam and Libor leads to Julian questioning his sense of who and what he is.

As a result, The Finkler Question becomes, in part, Julian as a Gentile and his relationship with Judaism and ‘Jewishness’. But in ostensibly looking at Libor, Sam and other characters as Jews and how Julian ‘measures up’, The Finkler (Jewish) Question is as much about the sense of belonging and the associated obligations/expectations of that belonging.

As an anti-Zionist, is Sam a lesser Jew? Hephzibah only introduces a kosher kitchen at the behest of Julian yet she is the director of the planned Anglo-Jewish Cultural Centre. Tyler, Sam’s wife, was a convert. Yet, in spite of her upholding the religious customs and beliefs more than Sam, as a reformist, she was not totally accepted. And deep down, Julian himself despairs of the religion that he does not fully grasp or can ever, ultimately, be part of.

The Finkler Question is something of a meandering narrative, jumping in time and place. It verges on plotless per se other than as a stream of (Jewish) consciousness. Julian finds some of the answers to his questions: some of the questions he doesn’t understand himself. Both Sam and Libor deal with their grief at the loss of their wives in their own ways.

Anti-Semitism does rear its ugly head in obvious ways but also in surprising ways – The Finkler Question continues to challenge and question assumptions. People – Jews and non-Jews alike – come ago, vehicles for Jacobson to propound yet more opinions (occasionally over-contrived – Julian’s youngest son a Holocaust denier). And Treslove’s neurotic obsession occasionally palls (Maimonides?).

But the 2010 Booker Prize winner is a seamless roll of pathos and humour, of philosophy and politics, relentless in its search for a truth. Not that Jacobson is going to answer The Finkler Question – mainly because there is not one answer. Put two Jews in a room and you’ll get three very different opinions. Welcome to The Finkler Question.

 

‘On Beauty’ by Zadie Smith

OnBeautybookcoverOn second reading, Zadie Smith’s acerbic third novel, On Beauty, fails to make any real emotional impact.

Essentially the story of two feuding families in the rarefied atmosphere of academia and a (fictional) New England university just outside Boston, On Beauty is contrived and predictable, populated with a host of generally unlikeable characters.

Set in London, Smith’s first book, White Teeth, was full of life – street-wise sass, larger-than-life characters, snappy dialogue. To some extent she has attempted to replicate the sass and savvy with the Belsey family – and in 52 year-old Kiki (wife and mother), an African-American woman from Florida and “a solid two hundred and fifty pounds [with a] beautiful tough girl face”, Smith has succeeded.

But sadly Kiki operates in a vacuum. Husband Howard is an untenured lecturer and art historian at Wellington College, a stereotypical liberal, shambolic academic. He may love his wife and three teenage kids (in his own way), but he is out of touch with the world around him and unable to communicate effectively with family, colleagues or students. A recently revealed (albeit short-lived) affair has certainly strained the usually rambling and boisterous Belsey family home.

The news that Monty Kipps, a black conservative professor and Howard’s nemesis as both art historian and humanitarian, has been offered a secondment at Wellington sends the Belseys into a tailspin. Howard, due to a lack of focus and commitment, has repeatedly failed to deliver his book on Rembrandt. An arrogant and foppish Monty has recently had published his own book on Rembrandt to critical acclaim.

Characters come and go throughout On Beauty. Howard fails to prevent Monty moving to Wellington – and to cap it all, the Kipps family move into a house not so far from the Belseys. Against the grain, Kiki becomes friends with Carlene Kipps – although this relationship is more than a little strained. Lonely and rarely in the company of her husband, Carlene is something of an ‘academia widow’ as far as Kiki is concerned. But Carlene has her own secret she choses not to share with family or friends. Her oddness and vagueness is later revealed when the secret proves to be a terminal cancer.

So much for the adults (throw into the mix various academic peers – the beatnik female poet, Claire; Erskine – Head of Black Studies and Howard’s best friend; the tiresome and longwinded Dean).

On the teenage front, Zora Belsey is precociously and arrogantly academic, an opinionated activist admired rather than liked by her peers and teachers at Wellington. She is very much ‘her father’s daughter.’ Jerome, the eldest Belsey child, is sensitive and intelligent, choosing to study at Brown University rather than stay at home. Much to the dismay of his parents, Jerome has recently found God and the Church. Levi is the odd child out – the youngest with an aversion to study but an interest in Rap, Hip-Hop and ‘street’. A chance encounter results in him becoming involved in the Haitian cause.

In the Kipps family home remains only 18 year-old Victoria (her brother Michael choses to stay in London). She is sexually active and uses her beauty to her advantage, especially as a new student at Wellington.

All characters meet and clash – Zora’s relationship with Victoria mirrors that of their fathers; Monty is suspicious of Kiki’s motives towards Carlene. Both Howard and Jerome have encounters with Victoria.

But there’s just too much ‘chance’ or ‘serendipity’ in On Beauty. The Kipps and the Belseys both ‘happen’ to be in London at the same time to enable them all to attend a funeral: Levi ‘happens’ to become interested in the Haitian cause just as the Kippses arrive in Wellington – both Monty and Carlene are from Haiti. External student Chantelle, intern to Monty, ‘happens’ to work part-time at the same record megastore as Levi. It’s all a little too convenient, structured to enable the episodic narrative to progress.

Yet, in spite of the negativity towards On Beauty, there were a number of high points – and the last few pages, the culmination of all that had gone before them, were as good as anything Smith has written (at least in the other books of hers I have read). The title ‘On Beauty’ comes from a poem – Smith comments, throughout, on different perceptions of beauty. Skin deep comes to mind as, throughout, the hypocrisy of opinion and action becomes more and more prevalent. The two patriarchs are (predictably) proven to be the biggest hypocrites. But they are certainly not the only ones.

All the characters are struggling beneath the weight of personal expectations placed upon them. Added to which Smith explores the dynamics of race and gender in contemporary America through what is essentially a domestic drama against the backdrop of academia. But On Beauty feels as if Smith is also struggling under that weight – the critical disappointment to her sophomore novel, The Autograph Man, after the raves bestowed on White Teeth.

Interestingly, On Beauty was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (it lost out to the execrable The Sea by John Banville) – an achievement that outstripped the multi-award winning White Teeth in 2000.

 

 

‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman

9781408828205Recently arrived in London with his mother and sister (the rest of the family remain in Ghana), eleven year-old Harri needs to learn the rules and language of the street – and quickly.

Living on the eleventh floor of a block of flats on a rough London council estate where the Dell Farm Crew rule the roost, Harri is a kid who loves his family and with his own dreams. But then a boy is knifed to death on the estate: the police call for witnesses is met with silence. With a little too much TV experience and crime series in particular to his name, Harri along with best mate Dean, enticed by the thrill and adventure, decide to naively start their own investigations.

Pigeon English is something of a hybrid first novel from Stephen Kelman. That it is homage to the experiences of young migrant kids and alien environments is unquestionable. But Kelman himself also confirms that it is homage to the 2000 murder of 10 year-old Damilola Taylor on London’s notorious North Peckham estate by local gang members. Taylor had only recently arrived with his family from Nigeria.

But the novel is also a celebration of childhood, friendship and the innocence (or not) of experience in an ever-changing world. Told from Harri’s infectious and ebullient curiosity and glorious multicultural slang, he might possibly be the fastest runner in his school: he certainly believes himself to be in love with classmate Poppy: he misses his Papa, grandma and baby sister still in Ghana. But Harri is also wary of gang members X-Fire and Killa along with his sister’s worldly friend, Miquita (girlfriend of Killa).

It’s an endearing read tinged with more than a little sadness – the waste, the hopelessness, the fear, the despair of life in such environments. Harri tries to make the most of it – and it is his enthusiasm for the world around him that draws you into the book.

Pigeon English was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize, but lost out to Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending.

‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet

graeme-macrae-burnet-his-bloody-projectThere’s no disputing 17 year old Roderick Macrae violently and bloodily murdered three members of the MacKenzie family in the remote Scottish farming community of Culduie in 1869. He’s admitted it to neighbours, police and his legal representative. But why? And will his actions lead to the gallows?

Written in the form of documents supporting a case study, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a masterful psychological thriller. From the slightly tongue-in-cheek preface from the author himself, the witness statements given to the police through to the medical reports and Macrae’s own account of the lead up to the events, the book is an absorbing and intricate read, a mix of revenge tragedy and courtroom drama.

An intelligent and sensitive teenager, Macrae is the son of a dirt-poor crofter on the Ross-shire coast of northeast Scotland. It’s a landscape of great beauty but terrible hardship and injustice as tenants eke out a paltry living in almost feudal conditions. Roderick’s station in life is mapped out before him: there are few opportunities to break away from the tradition of toil.

With his mother recently dead (giving birth to the twins) and parented solely by a dour and devout Presbyterian father not averse to using his fists to punish his eldest son, there is little joy in the Macrae household. But in spite of this, Roderick seemingly accepts his lot. Not that there’s much more joy in the small Culduie community itself – a settlement of nine homes to some 50 people.

It’s Roderick’s account of his life and those around him that forms the core of His Bloody Project. Sitting alone in his cell in Inverness gaol awaiting trial, it is his legal representative, Mr Sinclair, who suggests he writes. And what flows is an intimate yet emotionally distant narrative of his family, the everyday existence of a crofter and his experience at the Big House. But it also details the campaign by Lachlan MacKenzie as constable of the settlement (the laird’s representative) against the Macrae family: fining the family for minor infringements of their tenancy, targeting them and generally bullying father and son alike.

His Bloody Project is a compelling read as Roderick’s account is juxtaposed with that of the official reports and, later in the book, a splendidly pompous ‘extract’ from Travels in the Border Lands of Lunacy by J Bruce Thompson where the expert talks of the criminal class (identifiable in part by the shape of the skull) and (nineteenth century) contemporary criminal psychology. It’s from his discussions with Roderick that Thompson expounds on his opinions and insight. And it’s in the courtroom this overbearing official is more than happy to declare these opinions as fact.

Detailed, evoking a real sense of place through precise prose (it was originally believed to be a novel based on a true story), His Bloody Project delves deeply into the psyche of Roderick – but without giving us all the answers. Just how reliable is the boy as the narrator of events: the prosecution in the courtroom reveals more of the events in the MacKenzie home that certainly wrong-foots us?

Wonderfully multilayered, Burnet’s second book was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. It lost out to the first American winner of the award – Paul Beatty and The Sellout.