An author researching a notorious and now-forgotten British psychotherapist unexpectedly receives a series of notebooks written by a former patient. Thus begins Graeme Macrae Burnet’s metafictional novel, presented as the footnoted second edition of a biography written by the slyly named G.M.B. The unnamed writer of the notebooks is a young London woman looking for explanations two years after her sister’s suicide in 1963. Blaming the unconventional psychotherapist Collins Braithwaite for her sister’s death, she goes undercover as a patient named Rebecca Smyth. She worries that she looks too neat and collected to be “a nut,” but through her sessions with Braithwaite, “Rebecca” becomes less and less certain of that, as her real self and her undercover self vie for control. The five notebooks alternate with G.M.B.’s detailed biographical chapters on the forgotten—and, it should be said, wholly fictional—Collins Braithwaite.
Case Study is a dizzying dive into British counterculture of the 1960s and the radical anti-psychiatry movement. This short novel is wildly inventive and slickly written. The notebooks feel so casually and authentically from the period, with “Rebecca’s” word choices and the details she includes saying as much about 1960s British society as they do about her place in it. “Rebecca” is deliciously unreliable as a narrator and seems as constructed as her undercover persona, leaving the reader to wonder at the honesty in either her initial self-assuredness or her later descent into instability. Through both “Rebecca’s” notebooks and G.M.B.’s biography, Braithwaite comes across as arrogant, dismissive, manipulative, but also undeniably magnetic and brilliant. I must stress the “fictional” again, as Burnet writes so convincingly that I found myself looking up Braithwaite, more than once, sure that I had just failed to find him in the last search. An excellent and imaginative novel, well deserving of its place on the Booker Prize longlist.