Books of my life by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Graeme Macrae Burnet (MA 1989) had been writing fiction since his teens, but losing his job when he was 40 was the spur he needed to finish his first novel. Opening the first box of books of his debut novel, ‘The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau’, was an irreplaceable moment in his life. His second novel, the historical thriller ‘His Bloody Project’, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, outselling its rivals by more than a third.

The book that makes me laugh the most
George Orwell’s ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’. Orwell is a hilariously funny writer – a very good observer of social manners and etiquette. It’s the comedy of embarrassment – somebody having to pay through the nose for a cup of tea in a posh restaurant because he’s trying to impress a girl. The other funny aspect of Orwell is that he’s an old Etonian. In ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, he goes up north to see how the poor live, staying with these tremendously impoverished mining families and describing them with this public schoolboy language – using terms like “beastly”. I think the incongruence of that causes humour.

The book that makes me cry
It’s by an obscure Belgian writer, Madeleine Bourdouxhe, called ‘La Femme de Gilles’. It’s about a woman who is very much in love with her husband, but he is having an affair with her sister. It’s utterly heartbreaking and written with such elegance. I would love to write a book like that.

The book I come back to again and again
‘Crime and Punishment’. It’s a huge, capacious novel, with great richness of character. I love the exciting, unpredictable character of Raskolnikov and the machinations he goes through in his mind to try and determine if the murders he commits are predestined. It’s gripping; a book you find more in each time you read it. I’d love to go carousing with Raskolnikov. We’d go and drink some vodka, eat some sausage ... I’m sure he wouldn’t have any money – maybe a couple of kopeks – so I’d have to buy all the rounds.

The book I loved most as a child
There was a book in my granny’s house up in the Highlands, ‘Mr Papingay and the Little Round House’. He goes to post a letter and there’s a little door in the letterbox, so he goes inside and finds this community of people there. I was totally fascinated by this book. It was like Kafka for kids – surreal.

The book that inspired me
‘The Years’ by the French writer Annie Ernaux. It’s a memoir of her life, and one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read. I read the first four or five pages … then I read them again … then I read them again! I met her at the Edinburgh Festival last year – she has a rather other-wordly presence, elegant and calm. I practised some of my terrible French on her when I was getting my book signed, because she doesn’t speak English. So that was kind of thrilling.

The book I'm currently reading
I’ve just finished a book by [UofG alumnus] RD Laing, the Glasgow psychiatrist, called ‘Sanity, Madness and the Family’. It’s a study he did in the ‘60s of about 15 women who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and the family dynamics that may or may not have been behind their conditions. I’ve got no training in psychology, but I do find it fascinating. So I’m reading these case studies almost as if they’re short stories.

Graeme is working on his fourth novel, a psychological thriller set in the London of the 1960s, that will be published in 2021. Follow Graeme on Twitter.

This article was first published March 2020.