‘I have decided to write down everything that happens, because I feel, I suppose, I may be putting myself in danger.’
London, 1965. An unworldly young woman suspects charismatic psychotherapist Collins Braithwaite of involvement in a death in her family. Determined to find out more, she becomes a client of his under a false identity. But she soon finds herself drawn into a world in which she can no longer be certain of anything.
A technically fascinating account as Burnet adopts the different voices of his two protagonists as they invent and reinvent and lose their own identities; the reading experience was rather let down but how unlikeable those characters were.
What I Liked
- Macrae Burnet’s ventriloquism, adopting and exploring two very different voices in GMB’s scholarly detatchment and the notebooks’ narrator’s desperation;
- The recreation of the interiority of the notebooks’ narrator, constrained and inhibited and repressed; a huge contrast to her self-made alter ego, Rebecca Smyth;
- The scenes where the narrator and Smyth argue were simultaneously disturbing and hilarious
What Could Have Been Different
- The putative ‘found narrative’ framing story felt a little over familiar now;
- The unlikeability of the main characters did detract from the pleasure of the novel.
Graeme Macrae Burnet was the standout narrative voice of the 2016 Booker longlist and shortlist with His Bloody Project: the ‘found’ narrative of a brutal murder in a crofting community showed a wide range of narrative voices in it from the croft to the court. It married an exceptional sort of narrative ventriloquism with compelling characters and a deep sense of the setting.
I had also enjoyed the small town detective novel The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau with its quiet voice and gentle bucking of genre conventions. But again, this was framed as a found narrative: Macrae Burnet claimed only to be the translator of the novels.
It was, therefore, with some excitement that I picked up Case Study which again employed the found narrative frame: GMB is an academic – intrigued by the personality of Collins Braithwaite, a notorious psychotherapist of the 1960s and toying with the idea of a biography – when a Mr Martin Gray writes, offering up a series of notebooks that contain a firsthand account of a client of Brathwaite’s.
The novel alternates between GMB’s biography – which was perhaps the slower and less directly engaging as a result actually of Macrae Burnet’s achievement in recreating an authentic academic voice – and the more compelling account in the notebooks whose narrator is devastated by the death by suicide of her sister. Having discovered that her sister appears to have been a client of Braithwaite’s, the narrator adopts a false name and persona, “Rebecca Smyth”. The account of how she came up with the name was lovely: having toyed with different names, she had seen Smith of a lorry and considers that
‘Smith’ was exactly the sort of innocuous name that one would never think to choose as an alias, and was thus ideal for my purpose. Then, when I decided to alter the spelling, I felt I had the beginnings of a convincing persona. ‘Smyth with a Y,’ I would say in an offhand manner, as if I had grown weary of repeating it all my life. And, perhaps on account of Mrs du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca had always struck me as the most dazzling of names.
Where the narrator is down trodden and repressed and living confined with her domineering father, she invents Rebecca as a sexually confident and experienced woman, albeit one whom Braithwaite apparent sees through almost instantaneously.
The novel is run through with unreliable narrators and unreliable narratives, as well as rather obvious academic commentaries on doubling in literature and psychology, of doubled characters – it is a novel in which every character seems to be wearing a mask and adopting a persona, only to find another mask beneath the first one. A novel in which, to tug on any character, threatens to unravel them completely.
The depiction of the 1960s, the decade caught between repression and liberation, between taboos and freedoms, was wonderful and I loved the way that Macrae Burnet had Braithwaite rub shoulders with real life academics and celebrities in his rise to fame or infamy – R. D. Laing, Dirk Bogarde – as well as the details of the settings such as the tea shops and the pubs that the narrator of the notebooks found herself in – something about that pub somehow reminded me of the pubs in my parents’ village when I was growing up, which always felt a couple of decades stuck in the past somehow… and the scene in the pub where Rebecca resents the narrator’s attempts to resist her flirtation is deliciously funny!
Overall, therefore, whilst this is a bravura technical performance in its narrative intricacy and playfulness – GMB informs us that he has already fact checked the notebooks and found them unreliable in certain aspects – and the ways in which the biography and the notebooks converge is masterful, I still found the novel lacking. Lacking in subtlety perhaps, lacking in charm, lacking in likeable characters. A novel that was certainly clever but perhaps too clever for its own good.