For the last few years, I’ve been attempting to read the Booker Prize longlist in its entirety, before the shortlist is announced. This requires dedication as well as some willingness to obtain books outside of my usual means, since they’re not always available in North America yet. I will pay for a book + shipping in pounds sterling if I have to (which at the current exchange rate, is actually better than it has been in the past). But when I was able to get a copy of Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet in not only service of my goal, but also in service of The Miramichi Reader, well! I was excited to get into this one.
When I read the books longlisted for the Booker Prize, I’m looking for several things. I want to be challenged by the novel: subject matter, form, or language and any combination of those used to push me. I want it to be fully immersive. I want it to do something interesting or unique in terms of storytelling. This is an elite literature prize, right? I expect a lot of the texts which make it to the longlist, and even more of the ones that make it to the shortlist.
Case Study is a serious contender for the Booker, in my mind. At the time of writing this review, I’m about halfway done the longlist, but Case Study truly stands out. A tight psychological literary thriller, Burnet uses form to build a compelling metafiction. Burnet opens the novel with a note explaining that he was sent a series of notebooks from a pseudonymous Mr. Grey, after the latter has seen a blog post Burnet had written about the psychotherapist A. Collins Braithwaite, a largely discredited charlatan but nonetheless a fascinating person with a brief streak of prominence in the 1960s. The notebooks had been written by an unnamed young woman in 1965, who had hatched a plan to see Braithwaite under a false name, in order to prove that he had driven her sister to suicide. Between chapters detailing Braithwaite’s biographical information, Burnet shares the notebook, which reveal a prudish and superior young woman spiralling as she goes further in her deception.
It was after the author’s note that I decided to search Braithwaite, who is not a real person. But Burnet’s framing is that believable, and an excellent introduction to an unsettling, strange, and fully gripping story. He inserts himself as a minor character, a mostly invisible hand leading you through Braithwaite’s life and the young woman’s increasing inability to determine what is real. Her assumed identity, for her appointments with Braithwaite, Rebecca Smyth, becomes another character, apart from the young woman. Rebecca is many things the young woman is not – and furthermore, begins to take over the young woman’s life. The portrayal of mental illness in the novel is delicate and nuanced, passed without judgement despite largely being focused on a highly judgy main character, and being set in a time with very different ideas about mental illness than we have today.
The characters are all deeply unlikeable, but rich and fascinating in their own right; both the young woman and Braithwaite make liberal use of deception to try and get their respective ways. By framing it as the publishing of a set of notebooks written by someone else, Burnet immediately knocks you away from any ideas of trusting the narrative, forcing you to ask what is and isn’t real, as well as completely distrust the young woman.
I carried this book everywhere I went while I was reading it, to try and squeeze more reading time out of my day. It is a truly riveting novel, entertaining as it makes you question everything about it, and beautifully written. There are no wasted words in this book; everything is in services of bringing you to the spectacular conclusion. I’ll be thinking about it for some time to come, because I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of the depth in this novel, and it already merits a reread.
Graeme Macrae Burnet is the author of the ‘fiendishly readable’ His Bloody Project, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize and the LA Times Book Awards. It won the Saltire Prize for Fiction and has been published to great acclaim in twenty languages around the world. Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme now lives in Glasgow.
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