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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Case Study

Graeme Macrae Burnet

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To purchase Case Study

Title: Case Study
Author: Graeme Macrae Burnet
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 276 pages
Availability: Case Study - US
Case Study - UK
Case Study - Canada
Une patiente - France
Fallstudie - Deutschland
Caso clínico - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very fine writing; enjoyably spun tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A+ 24/11/2021 Christian House
The Guardian . 14/10/2021 Nina Allan
Literary Review . 11/2021 Tom Williams
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/11/2022 Christian Lorentzen
The Observer A 22/11/2021 Alex Preston
The Spectator . 2/10/2021 Leyla Sanai
The Times . 28/9/2021 James Walton
TLS . 8/10/2021 Kate Webb

  From the Reviews:
  • "Graeme Macrae Burnet’s barnstorming psychodrama, which successfully fuses mystery, comedy and a meditation on the nebulous nature of identity. (...) The musty north London milieu, with its chintzy tea rooms, cold park benches and sticky pubs, is brilliantly evoked. (...) Burnet’s greatest achievement, however, is making you care about a woman whose name you do not know, a doctor you don’t want to know and a story you can’t trust. Consistently inventive, caustically funny and surprisingly moving, this is one of the finest novels of the year." - Christian House, Financial Times

  • "The painstakingly assembled, predominantly mimetic fiction of the 19th century has trained us to trust the author; Burnet has always delighted in undermining such easy assumptions, and in Case Study he ups the stakes still further, providing a veritable layer cake of possible realities to get lost in. (...) If Burnet’s aim in writing Case Study was to force us up against the contradictions of our conflicted selves, he has surely succeeded. This is a novel that is entertaining and mindfully engrossing in equal measure." - Nina Allan, The Guardian

  • "Case Study has a lot in common with the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño, in which invented characters pass through tumultuous episodes of literary history that never quite happened, though it seems as if they should have. (...) Case Study is a diverting novel, overflowing with clever plays on and inversions of tropes of English intellectual and social life during the postwar decades. As such, it is not exactly an excursion into undiscovered literary terrain. Reading Burnet’s doubly mediated metafiction of North London neurotics and decadents, I often longed to turn back to the shelf for the real thing: fictions by Doris Lessing, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Muriel Spark, Jenny Diski, Julian Barnes, Alan Hollinghurst, Zadie Smith or Rachel Cusk; biographies of Plath and Hughes; films of kitchen-sink realism starring Bogarde and Laurence Harvey, with scripts by Harold Pinter; or even the documentaries of Adam Curtis, in which Laing often makes a cameo." - Christian Lorentzen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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" - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "The notebooks are interspersed with a biography of Braithwaite by Burnet, who tells us he has studied his books. Both strands quickly become compelling. (...) I was hooked like a fish." - Leyla Sanai, The Spectator

  • "(T)ortuous, cunning and highly self-conscious (.....) Readers who equate self-referentiality with intellectual integrity, or who simply enjoy being toyed with, are in for a treat. (...) What is so clever about Burnet’s novel, and the source of much of its humour, is the introduction into this permissive environment of Rebecca, the mousey homebody who ends up outwitting the so-called genius. (...) Ultimately, what the author wants to show us is that, by pulling us into his tale, he can leave ink on our hands too." - Kate Webb, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Case Study begins with a Preface by 'GMB' in which he explains that, after writing a blog post about a 1960s psychotherapist, Collins Braithwaite, -- "a contemporary of R.D.Laing, and something of an enfant terrible of the so-called anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s" -- he was contacted by a Mr Grey, who said he had five notebooks that: "might form the basis of an interesting book". These notebooks were kept by a cousin of his and are largely a record of her association with Braithwaite in the mid-1960s. Case Study then presents the contents of the five notebooks, alternating between them and biographical material about Braithwaite collected by the author (and then a Postscript, in which GMB meets the sender of the notebooks).
       The notebooks are written by a woman whose sister, Veronica, was a patient of Braithwaite's -- whom she holds responsible for Veronica's suicide. After reading what he wrote about Veronica in his second book, Untherapy -- the: "highly readable, salacious, and often insightful" book of case studies he published, to considerable success, in 1965 -- and then also his first book, provocatively titled Kill Your Self, she presented herself to Braithwaite as a patient, calling herself 'Rebecca Smyth'. It is a part she then plays -- for him, but also occasionally beyond his practice --, Rebecca Smyth becoming an alter ego of sorts, allowing her also to experiment with some behavior she otherwise could not imagine engaging in.
       In her notebooks, the woman frequently discusses writing -- including pointing out that:

Writing something down invests it with a kind of significance, but in general things are of such little consequence, even to those involved, that the act of recording them is no more than vanity.
       She mentions getting and starting to keep a diary when she was ten -- but, anticipating that her mother would read it (just as she herself sneaked peaks into her sister's diary):
My diary, however, was a work of fiction. I constructed a character, much as any novelist would do, and all for the benefit of a single reader. It is not that what I wrote was untrue. At least as far as I can recall, these things did actually happen. It's just that, taken together, they create a false impression. The real truth lay not in what I wrote, but in what I omitted.
       Here and elsewhere, the readers of Case Study are reminded that all writing is suspect. And, of course, the narrator spends much of her time presenting herself -- for Braithwaite, and some others -- as someone she is not. She really gets into character -- going so far as to note that: "There would be no more play-acting" as she prepares to present herself again to the psychotherapist: she tries to fully inhabit the role of Rebecca Smyth -- even as she constantly reminds herself and readers how very different this character is from her usual (though not necessarily true ...) self.
       Presenting a made-up version of herself to Braithwaite is just the most obvious way in which the narrator is telling stories, with the reader left unsure as to how much else of her account is also fiction(alized). But, as Braithwaite points out after Rebecca Smyth recounts something for him:
     The thing is, petal, it doesn't actually matter to me whether any of it actually happened. What matters is that this was the story you chose to tell.
       Case Study plays this game, of identity and the stories we tell, to ourselves and to others, that are the foundation of identity, in various forms. It's also parts of Braithwaite's shtick, with GMB noting about his Kill Your Self:
Braithwaite takes as his starting point the idea that if one is going to talk about the self, one should begin by defining what one means. He quickly descends, however, into claiming that defining the self at all is a fraudulent act: the Self does not exist as an entity or a thing; if it exists at all, it is no more than a projection of the self (the book is full ofsuch paradoxes).
       Braithwaite does not necessarily see through the woman presenting herself to him as Rebecca Smyth, but the way she acts squares with his way of seeing:
Everything you do is concealment. And it's not that you're concealing something from me. You're concealing it from yourself. You're buried under a landslide of fakery. The way you dress is fake. The way you speak is fake. Even the way you hold your cigarette is fake. You're a phoney.
       The 1960s setting, especially the greater sexual freedom, a more emancipated role for women, and also attitudes towards mental disorder and its treatment, all contribute to the story, as Burnet captures and utilizes the changing times and the spirit in the air -- especially in the London of that time -- very well. The narrator, in her original self, is almost spinsterish, despite her young age, more or less content to live with her father, spending evenings: "in the brocade armchair reading novels about Modern Independent Women who throw it all up at the first whiff of matrimony". She acknowledges powerful sexual urges, but keeps them under wraps; only as Rebecca Smyth can she even begin to act out more publicly. Smoking is a frowned-upon sensual freedom (she recalls her mother's maxim that: "only whores smoked outdoors") she indulges in -- yet typically part of the allure of that particular freedom is that it also masks:
Ever since I took up the habit, I have loved smoking more than anything. Smoking is a veil.
       Rebecca Smyth and Braithwaite play a kind of cat and mouse game that is entertaining and even suspenseful. The biographical details GMB fills in about the not-so-professional shooting star who flames out add another facet to the story. The present-day Postscript by GMB makes for a nice final twist.
       Burnet evokes a place and an era very nicely, in pitch-perfect prose. Braithwaite is a compelling character, but it's his female narrator, in particular, that makes for such enjoyable reading. Emotion remains beautifully buried in her often affectless account, as when she writes about her sister's suicide:
She leapt off and he had been left holding nothing but her shoe. That shoe, along with her other clothing and the contents of her handbag, were later returned to us. The second shoe was never recovered, but as her feet were two sizes larger than mine, I could not in any case have worn them.
       The persona of Rebecca Smyth allows the narrator to get out of her own skin, but even at its most mousey her original character has an appealing -- because so convincing -- sense of resignation:
All the needlepoint and pianoforte in the world cannot alter the fact that for most of us quiet despair is the best we can hope for.
       Case Study is an artfully twisted and presented fiction about identity and the stories we tell, and a wonderful evocation of 1960s London. The resolution is appropriate enough, if arguably not quite offering the hoped-for payoff, given the built-up tension of the story's basic premise, but this is certainly a satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 September 2022

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Case Study: Reviews: Graeme Macrae Burnet: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet was born in 1967.

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© 20222-2023 the complete review

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