My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
I should have hated this book. It has pretty much everything I avoid when choosing a read, it’s historical fiction, it has an unusual format and worst of all it was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize (I have to admit I hear award nominee and avoid like the plague). However, this book proved to be my surprise hit of the year. I loved it and I don’t think I’ve stopped talking about it since.
It’s set in 1869 in a small crofting community in the highlands of Scotland where a brutal triple murder has been committed by 17 year old Roderick Macrae. There’s no question that he committed the crime but there is the question of what drove a shy and intelligent young lad to carry out such a violent crime.
The story is told through a collection of documents beginning with witness statements from the other crofters and Roderick Macrae’s own memoir which describes the events leading up to the event before finishing with post mortem reports, a psychological evaluation and transcripts from the trial.
I think it’s this format that makes this book such a success and is a stroke of genius by the author. Each of the “documents” collected in this novel has a unique voice and perspective on the events which keeps the reader guessing until the end on both Roderick’s motivations and his character in general. They vary in length from a page to almost a third of the book but each and every one is written with such incredible skill that they feel genuine.
The witness statements at the start are among the shortest at a couple of pages each but as well as giving you that individuals perspective on the events, they also create a picture of that individuals character and I could visualize exactly the type of person they were from their words. The post mortem reports are short and factual, as you would expect, but still managed to make me sit up in shock. Reading them I found myself feeling like a detective on the case trying to decipher from the evidence and statements what really, truly happened.
Roderick Macrae’s memoir, written while in prison at the request of his advocate, makes up probably the largest proportion of the first half of the story and is very convincing reading. It gives you a real sense of life in the village and I have to admit had me completely buying in to Roddy’s tale of persecution and feeling sorry for the hard and lonely life he seemed to lead. The murders are described by him in some detail and by the time I got to them I was kind of willing him on. As the perpetrator of these violent acts, and facing a hanging if found guilty, he is however an unreliable narrator and there are some alternative theories put forward which left me questioning his story.
One of these comes from James Bruce Thomson, a psychiatrist brought in by the advocate to try and prove his client not guilty due to insanity. Thomson’s evaluation of Macrae, part of a book he’s written, is included in the collection and presents a very different picture of Roderick. As Thomson himself doesn’t come across as the most likeable character (elitist, rude and arrogant would be a mild description) you can’t really trust his version of events either but it does make you wonder, particularly when he gives his theory on the stand as part of the trial.
I think it was this constant questioning of what really happened that made this such an enjoyable read. I was desperate to talk about it with someone and get their perspective and theories (I think I’m going to suggest it for book club for this very reason). Also, despite my general dislike of historical fiction I think the 1869 Scottish crofting community setting added to the general atmosphere of the story and was so well described that it felt authentic throughout.
This is definitely a book I would recommend (and already have) to anyone and everyone, even if like me they avoid historical fiction and award nominees 🙂