Book - Case Study

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet cover

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet ...

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a book within a book. It’s a book about Collins Braithwaite, a 60s psychiatrist who is an anti-psychiatrist. In between the biographical sections about Braithwaite are the notebooks of an unnamed Braithwaite patient. Except she wasn’t really a patient. She had signed up for treatment because Braithwaite had been treating her sister, Veronica, who had committed suicide. She creates a false identity, Vanessa Smyth, to allow her to speak to Braithwaite without raising his suspicions.

What follows is a novel that – dreaded phrase – plays with the format of the novel. There’s a preface from ‘GMB’ whose put this book together and ends with a postscript to the second edition. The probing nature of the notebooks reminded me, oddly, of Watson’s attempts to understand Holmes in ‘A Study in Scarlet’.

As the book goes on our unnamed investigator begins to merge with her false identity. They have arguments with each other. The book constantly talks about the masks we put on. Braithwaite’s notorious ‘anti-psychiatry’ hammers away at the concept of a single stable personality. Do we have one? Should we have one?

Is anyone a reliable narrator in this story? Our nameless narrator, her dead sister, Veronica, Collins Braithwaite, and Vanessa Smyth sometimes seem like aspects of the same personality. As everyone starts to unravel the book really starts to feel like it has interesting and compassionate things to say about day-to-day struggles in the face of what society expects of us – or sells to us – and what our real existence is like:

“To not go on”,’ I repeated. It was a pleasing way of putting it. We are all the time urging each other to go on. The greater one’s misery, the more one is reminded to keep going. Just keep going, we cry, knowing full well that it is the last thing we want to do ourselves. But if like me, one faces no apparent adversity in life, nobody thinks to tell you to keep going. It is assumed that you will keep going, like an automaton. Why wouldn’t you? It requires an effort of will, an act of violence, to cease going on. But what a relief it would be. (p. 171)

This makes it sound like a terribly serious book, but it is drily funny too. The notebook entries have a Barbara Pym style to them. Perhaps with a dash of Jean Rhys. Our unnamed narrator has an eye for snark, politely expressed. Even – especially(?) – when she’s talking about herself. The sections that relate to Braithwaite’s adventures in the counterculture are also funny as he interacts with real people from the 60s and becomes something of a bohemian hero.

I suppose one should start waving the word ‘metatextual’ about when reviewing this book, but I think that makes it seems far more smartarsey than it is. I also think that this line under sells the job it does of making itself a thoughtful and compassionate take on mental illness. All of which combines to make this well worth reading. Experimental without being incomprehensible or pretentious.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

Image - Amazon

Powered by Blogger.