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In 2015, Graeme Macrae Burnet's HIS BLOODY PROJECT was short-listed for the Booker Prize. This summer his CASE STUDY was long-listed for this year's 2022 contest. Its Jury Statement asks: "A mystery story—or is it?—that takes us into the heart of the psychoanalytical consulting room. Or does it?" Finding a definitive answer to either question is not as simple as the reader might like. Since this review is not intended for the American Journal of Psychoanalysis, we can simply consider the first.
CASE LIST has a complex narrative structure. Introduced by "GMB," who shares his initials with the author, we are informed that GMB has received a series of notebooks written by a woman who had been a patient of a notorious psychotherapist in the 1960s. The therapist is Collins Braithwaite, a (fictional) antagonist of R.D. Laing, who was, of course, real. GMB has received a set of notebooks from one Martin Grey of Clacton-on-Sea who claims to be a cousin of their author, but who ultimately reveals that he is using a pseudonym. He has sent the notebooks to GMB because of the latter's interest in Braithwaite, revealed in a blog post. But the identity, even the actual existence, of the "cousin" remains unverified and is never revealed.
Thus CASE HISTORY consists of three different narratives from three separate perspectives and written by three different characters whom we may or may not accept as "real." GMB, who claims responsibility for this confection, is by no means identical to Graeme Macrae Burnet, who is unquestionably real and the author of the book we read. GMB contributes sections of a biography of Braithwaite. The author of the notebooks (whose actual name we never learn) presents herself as Rebecca Smyth (with a y), a name she invents derived from a passing heating engineer's van and her fondness for Daphne du Maurier. Braithwaite is unequivocally fictional but an extremely plausible reminder of the wilder shores of 1960s psychological therapeutics. His chief publications are Untherapy and Kill Your Self.
The notebooks reveal their author as a buttoned-down young woman who is heavily repressing a rebellious spirit out of deference to her parents, one of whom, her mother, is no longer alive. She is the second of two daughters and was present when her mother slipped to her death off a rocky path. The elder, Veronica, is also dead, "having thrown herself from the Bridge Approach in Camden and was killed by the 4.45 to High Barnet," as her sister informs us. The two sisters were often at odds - each believing that the other was preferred by their parents, but the survivor becomes convinced that Braithwaite was somehow responsible for her sister's death and is determined to prove it.
After she reads Braithwaite's account of a patient he calls "Dorothy" in Untherapy she believes that he is describing Veronica. She knows she must disguise herself so it is as Rebecca Smyth that she books an appointment with Dr Braithwaite, hoping to gather evidence to bring to the authorities. Her approach to this first meeting is darkly comic as she tries to imagine how a "nut," as she terms anyone who consults a therapist, would behave. But already her adoption of a new identity is creating a change in her. She has been sexually repressed for much of her life, but on the way to Braithwaite's office, she manages to flirt with a young man she picks up along the way. This is how Rebecca would behave she explains. It is the mid-60s, but she seems wholly unaware of the changes in sexual mores that others of her generation are exploring. Rebecca is far more alert, evidently.
And so what appears to be a variation on a classic crime convention is launched. Will the young woman succeed in her quest to unmask an evil doctor? Or will he suss her out and try to force her into emulating her sister's sorry end? Not to worry - the book doesn't veer in that direction. Braithwaite at times seems about to unmask his new patient and reveal her secret mission, but he never does. It is unclear whether he is simply too concerned with his own image to bother with hers or whether he is genuinely interested in effecting some positive change in his client.
GMB speaks up between each of the five notebooks with excerpts from the biographical essay he has written. The prose here is straightforward, a relatively unvarnished account of Braithwaite's life. The neutrality of the tone and its retrospective nature effectively reminds the reader that whatever is going on between Braithwaite and his patient happened a long time ago. Dismantling the usual protective distance between the reader and the fiction however has the curious effect of resurrecting the turbulent sixties less in their period detail than in their revolutionary ambitions.
CASE STUDY is at once frequently very funny and disturbingly unsettling. It covers a lot of distance in fewer than three hundred pages. It may avoid providing even so much as a definite hint as to the direction Burnet wants us to go, if indeed he has any preferences in the matter. I am still left with no firm answer to the Booker Jury question we started with. Is it a mystery? Maybe.
But it is not a mystery that any detective is likely to solve.
What decidedly it is is an enticing piece of metafiction that is impossible to put down, but not because it offers generated tension that is happily released when order and safety are restored. Instead it tempts us down one fascinating path after another without promising or providing any solutions. It didn't make the Booker short-list but it probably should have.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2022
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