Like the star footballer who continues to play for his home town when bigger names come calling, there’s something pleasing about the author who, despite great success, sticks with their original publisher. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, was a runaway hit, shortlisted for the Booker prize and translated into 20 languages. His publisher, Saraband, is a small but brilliant independent press and has done a fine job with the elegant hardback of his fourth novel, Case Study.
It is ostensibly the biography – written by Macrae Burnet – of a (fictional) radical psychoanalyst in the mould of RD Laing, Collins Braithwaite. Braithwaite, who called himself an “untherapist”, was known as “Britain’s most dangerous man” in the 1960s, but his ideas faded until he was “barely a footnote in psychiatric history”. At the beginning of Case Study, Macrae Burnet tells us that he has come into possession of a series of notebooks written in the 60s by a patient of Braithwaite – a young woman, Veronica – who believes that the psychoanalyst has driven her sister to suicide.
Roberto Bolaño said that all novels are at their core detective novels. Macrae Burnet expands upon this, suggesting that the reader and the psychoanalyst – such intimate bedfellows – are both detectives gathering clues in pursuit of a final judgment that lies always just out of sight.
In her journal, Veronica tells us that she has gone to Braithwaite under a pseudonym, Rebecca Smyth, in the hope of understanding what happened to her sister, who threw herself from an overpass. “Suicide makes Miss Marples of us all,” she says. She endows Smyth with a character that is rakish, confident, provocative – quite the opposite to her own mousily downtrodden nature. Braithwaite analyses her – this fictitious self – as she attempts to winkle out revelations from him. These texts are intercut with selections from Braithwaite’s notebooks, from Macrae Burnet’s convincingly earnest biographical study of Braithwaite.
It’s a book that is enormous fun to read, a mystery and a psychological drama wrapped up in one. Buoyed by the evident pleasure Macrae Burnet takes in spinning such a tightly knit tale – the author’s note at the end is magnificent – Case Study is a triumph, and ought to give Saraband another success story.
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