Well, this is a clever little book- sort of like a Scottish version of Rashomon. What is the truth? Who do we reveal the truth to? Do we hide it from ourselves?
In this novel, Burnet creates a murderous ancestor of his own- seventeen year old Roderick Macrae, a boy whose entire world is contained in the tiny Highland village he has lived in all of his life. Caught up in one of those feuds that seem to be woven in Scottish legends, he finds himself accused- and admitting- a terrible triple murder. So far, so typical murder novel. Except that Burnet has created archival documents- witness statements, trial transcripts, newspaper articles and, most intriguingly, Macrae’s confession document, ‘written’ at the behest of his defender and counsel. In it, Macrae admits what he has done and why, but other pieces of the puzzle come to light as you read that make you wonder whether what you believed earlier is the God’s Honest Truth.
I liked the piecemeal feeling to the book; I’m a huge fan of non-fiction work and I admire the fact that this feels very authentic. The author has had to weave in viewpoints and voices from a range of characters, as well as create the harsh landscape of 19th century Highland Scotland. It’s a brutal way of life that’s not without some hope (Roderick is a gifted student who does have a chance at a different life.) Events in the novel are explored from different viewpoints and I found myself guessing and my sympathies constantly shifting. I also found myself feeling heartbroken for the women in the novel; life on a croft was apparently hard, brutal and short and so much is left to the reader to infer.
The quote on the cover says that this is ‘Scotland’s answer to Scandi noir’, and I’m not sure that’s true. (Also, can we stop comparing stuff to Scandinavia?) What it is, though, is an exploration as to what it is to be honest, and of the ties of family, loyalty and community. It’s a short but dense novel and one that I’ll be recommending to anyone who will listen.