Content warning: mentions of suicide
When Rebecca recounts her sister Veronica’s suicide, she notes that a young man tried to intervene. He reached for Veronica but was too late. He caught her shoe as she fell from the overpass. “The second shoe was never recovered,” Rebecca narrates, “but as her feet were two sizes larger than mine, I could not in any case have worn them.”
Such is the sardonic tone that runs through “Case Study,” Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-nominated, brilliant and often disquieting work of psychological fiction. The novel is composed of two parts: a biography of the fictional 1960s psychologist Collins Braithwaite, and the notebooks of one of his patients, Rebecca.
Only her name isn’t Rebecca. The writer of the notebooks is a 20-something girl from London. She works as a secretary and lives at home with her father and has no desire to marry and move out of the house. Her mother died when she was 15, and her sister died recently.
In a published collection of Braithwaite’s case studies, “Rebecca” recognizes her sister in a patient called “Dorothy.” In the chapter, Braithwaite gives Dorothy a thought exercise: If you had one day to do whatever you wanted without consequence, what would you do?
“Eventually, the color rose to her cheeks. I asked her what she was thinking,” Braithwaite’s notes read. Dorothy doesn’t share her thoughts, but Braithwaite asks what the consequences would be if she indulged in them. “‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘There would be no consequences.’ I told her that she could do or be whatever she wanted. She seemed greatly unburdened. She did not, she told me, want to be Dorothy any longer.”
Rebecca recognizes this patient to be her sister from the way she gingerly reclines on a settee and uses the word “melodramatic.” She notes that Braithwaite’s office was “only a few minutes walk from the overpass from which Veronica had thrown herself.” She makes an appointment with Braithwaite. She means to learn more about him — or find proof that he led her sister to her end.
On the train to Braithwaite’s office, the narrator decides she can’t reveal who she is. He’d recognize her name and the details of her life from her sister’s own sessions. We never learn her real name, only the one she tells Braithwaite: Rebecca Smyth (with a Y).
What follows from this first flirtation with the Rebecca-persona is a spiral into the performative problem of identity itself — as she plays the role of Rebecca, a clever and worldly woman in Braithwaite’s office, she feels it carve out more and more of her.
Rebecca’s sessions with Braithwaite are the most engaging scenes in the story. There is an obvious tension between a woman lying about her identity and a man who analyzes identities as his profession. But there is another, greater tension, more like fear, as we see Braithwaite’s ability to manipulate and dominate others.
Braithwaite has the allure of male charisma and the corruption of it. He’s unkempt and often barefooted. He plays games, like stealing Rebecca’s usual seat in his office to see how she’ll respond. She says, “‘You’re sitting in my place … and you are doing so to try to throw me off.’ Rebecca, I had decided, would be the sort of person who said what was on her mind. In this way, she was my opposite.”
In character as Rebecca, she meets a man named Tom and agrees to a date after her session with Braithwaite. In the session, she recounts the story of her mother’s death and leaves feeling unsettled and unsteady. In her post-analysis stupor, she mistakes a bench outside for a horrid monster. But she checks herself, “It was an inanimate object. Rebecca mocked me for the silly thoughts I had had … We sat down together. Rebecca told me that she would deal with Tom. It was, after all, her he had invited. All I had to do was hold my tongue and not mess things up. I nodded solemnly.”
Here, “Rebecca,” once a useful mask, emerges as a cohabitant in the narrator’s mind. The story quickly spins into a dissociative identity disorder rendition of “The Bell Jar.” It is painfully charming and quick-witted until it becomes simply painful. The shift occurs in plain sight but without drawing any attention to itself. The narrator begins to hear a voice that isn’t her own. But isn’t it a better voice, a more confident and ambitious one?
With each week, the narrator loses more of herself to her alternate identity. It is a stunning exploration of character, written in a clever and often crooked voice I fell in love with on the first page. It merits, at the very least, a spot on the Booker Prize shortlist. But this story is only two-thirds of the novel.
The other third isn’t bad. Burnet writes a fictional biography of Braithwaite. From cradle to grave, he’s a provocative (read: abusive), sometimes-genius always-villain type of man. His story is interesting but does not capture the squalid mental ballet of Rebecca’s; it could’ve been delivered as quick snippets in her notebooks, newspaper clips or pages torn from books. Instead, it takes up too much of the novel, and is what stations it on the longlist.
“Case Study” reflects on relationships of power: the physical power of abusive men over women, the lingering power of memory over oneself. It reflects on the power of one’s wishes over one’s reality, the schism we create in ourselves when we resign to our present state and nothing more. Rebecca is a case study of what happens when desires run away on their own, such that a person is left to watch them go.
Books Beat Editor Julian Wray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.