Book Review

Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet

“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 believes that a charismatic psychotherapist, Collins Braithwaite, has driven her sister to suicide. Intent on confirming her suspicions, she assumes a false identity and presents herself to him as a client, recording her experiences in a series of notebooks. But she soon finds herself drawn into a world in which she can no longer be certain of anything. Even her own character.

In Case Study, Graeme Macrae Burnet presents these notebooks interspersed with his own biographical research into Collins Braithwaite. The result is a dazzling – and often wickedly humorous – meditation on the nature of sanity, identity, and truth itself by one of the most inventive novelists writing today.

I adored Graeme Macrae Burnet’s previous novel, His Bloody Project, and was eager to read Case Study as soon as I heard about it.

Case Study features two alternating texts – the notebooks of a patient of Collins Braithwaite, a controversial psychotherapist operating in the 1960s, which are presented alongside biographical information on Braithwaite himself.  The two sources work brilliantly to build up a picture of a young woman seeking information about her sister as well as Braithwaite who quickly proves, in common parlance, to be a bit of a dick.  As with his previous novel, Burnet positions Case Study as a work of fact with the preface explaining how the notebooks presented here were given to him whilst he was working on the biography of Collins Braithwaite.  Both works are, of course, fictional, and yet his characters are so well drawn that it’s easy to believe that they may in fact have existed and that Burnet is simply sharing the material with us as the preface claims.  It’s a small, inconsequential element to his novels, and yet it adds a sense of playfulness that appeals to me a great deal.  

The notebooks are penned by a young woman who becomes a patient of Braithwaite’s claiming thoughts of self-harm but who is really seeking information about her sister who was also a patient of Braithwaite’s until she took her own life.  She believes that Braithwaite – through his unconventional style – may have driven her to it.  It begins amusingly enough as our unnamed protagonist adopts the alter-ego of Rebecca Smyth and tries to play the part of a sophisticated and modern young woman.  It lends a sense of playfulness to the text – despite the seriousness of her mission – and yet the notebooks soon begin to convey something more worrying as Rebecca seems to take on a life of her own.   

I do not understand this current mania for freedom.  It seems to me that we would all be a good deal better off if we accepted our lot in life, rather than struggling to throw off some imagined shackles.

This young woman is an interesting character. With many of the books I read, women of this time are portrayed as being more than ready for equality and a feminist uprising, and so it’s easy to forget that not all women may have felt this way.  This woman certainly doesn’t, and the world and the newfound freedoms that some women are beginning to enjoy seem to frighten and fascinate her in equal measure.  Her new alter-ego allows her to sample this other life without committing to it fully, leaving her a safe if conventional haven to return to.  I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the notebooks themselves.  She claims to be writing them in case she is in danger, and yet the creation of the alter ego implies a duplicitous character and I wondered how much to believe as a result.  It’s fair to say that I read the notebooks with a requisite pinch of salt.

One thing that does ring true throughout is her portrayal of Braithwaite, particularly as the biographical notes support her views.  Braithwaite comes across as an enfant terrible in the field of psychotherapy, particularly as we learn that he isn’t actually qualified in his supposed field of expertise.  Rather, he published a book which caused some to seek his help and advice, and who is he to deny those in need?  Braithwaite comes across as a shallow man who cares little for anyone other than himself.  He does seem to understand people and what makes them tick, however, and he does enjoy a modicum of success in psychotherapy despite the controversary surrounding his methods.  I didn’t like him, and yet there’s something undeniably fascinating about him and his rock ‘n’ roll persona. 

Case Study is a novel that unfolds gradually, allowing the reader to build up a picture of “Rebecca” and Braithwaite through her sessions with him and the biographical material. And while I didn’t necessarily take the notebooks to be wholly believable, there is a sense that this young woman has bitten off more than she can chew as the novel progresses, and I did wonder if she was in fact in danger as she fears. It’s a fascinating novel and I was completely caught up in the narrative.

Case Study is a playful novel with dark undertones that explores themes of identity and sanity and how one person’s truth may not be consistent with the truth of others.  Published by Saraband, it’s available now in paperback, digital, and audio formats.


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