Updated: Oct 6, 2022
The author GMB, interested in psychiatry and one prolific 1960s psychiatrist in particular, is trusted with a set of notebooks kept by one of Collins Braithwaite’s patients. The only request is to turn the notes into a book to be published. GMB stays true to the text. The notebooks are published almost in full but he adds details known about the psychiatrist’s biography. The reader learns that Braithwaite’s career was non-linear, to put it mildly, he never studied psychiatry but became fascinated with the topic and outraged at some of the fields practices he witnessed while working in a mental health institution. He makes a name for himself through the publication of some infamous books – Untherapy and Kill Your Self – that go against the mainstream of psychiatric conventions. Essentially self-taught he opens a clinic, and can soon celebrate tremendous success. The notebooks are kept by a young woman whose sister was Braithwaite’s patient but had recently committed suicide. Our narrator just cannot fathom that her sister, whose life always seemed perfect, would have decided to take her own life had she not been influenced by her therapist. And so she takes on a false identity and makes an appointment. But rather than uncovering the truth, the notebooks’ author starts to become increasingly confused about her own identity as her Self and the character she invented split into two separate personalities.
Sounds intriguing, right? Unfortunately – as seems to be a theme with this Booker Longlist – what starts with a promising premise did not work out for me. What Burnet does really well, is exploring the narrative structures and the often blurry lines between fact and fiction. Of course I googled whether Braithwaite was a character from history, he reads very real. Burnet plays with the nature of the text itself and makes doubt one of his central protagonists. However, I simply did not get what I was promised in the blurb. The story I was reading ends halfway through, unresolved, and morphs into a different one which is never fully told before then losing its force and resulting in a finale that feels rushed and underwhelming. Finally, the way women were written made me uneasy. Braithwaite’s misogyny I could accept as a trait Burnet had consciously given to and criticised in his character. But the notebooks present their author in a way that reads like a caricature of women. I might be missing something here, he could have done this on purpose, but it just didn’t sit right with me and tainted my reading of the book from the beginning.