Tri­umph in the wake

This colour­ful ac­count of life in In­dia is a joy, finds Sam Phipps

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

THEREDBOOK Meaghan De­lahunt

MGranta £10.99 eaghan De­lahunt’s sec­ond novel – af­ter her ac­claimed In the Blue House – has had a long ges­ta­tion, and it shows. The Red Book com­prises fewer than 300 pages, in­clud­ing quite a bit of white space, but it’s both finely wrought and ex­pan­sive, the kind of fiction that lingers.

The story cen­tres on the Bhopal dis­as­ter of 1984, and is nar­rated in turns by three peo­ple from dis­parate back­grounds whose lives be­come in­ter­twined.

They are all to some ex­tent out­siders: Fran­coise, an Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher who has come to In­dia to doc­u­ment the ef­fects of the chem­i­cal ex­plo­sion al­most 20 years on; Naga, a Ti­betan refugee­turned-monk whose par­ents died in it; and Arkay, an al­co­holic Scot who has lived in In­dia for some 10 years and em­braced Bud­dhism in an at­tempt to es­cape the demons of his West Loth­ian up­bring­ing.

The red book of the ti­tle is what Fran­coise plans to give her un­born child one day. It will be a col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs telling “the sto­ries of how you came to be”. A short cap­tion pre­cedes ev­ery chap­ter, though for the reader, of course, the images are con­jured only by words.

One of the para­doxes of De­lahunt’s novel is that it is so con­cerned with the nar­ra­tive power of pho­to­graphic images to spur and even re­place me­mory, or to spark emo­tion. Fran­coise has been drawn to In­dia al­most by a sin­gle shot – Raghu Rai’s sear­ing pic­ture of a dead child in the rub­ble of Bhopal, cloudy eyes star­ing out at the lens, an un­seen adult’s hand on its brow. She is fur­ther com­pelled to search for Naga when she hears from her Sikh hosts how years ago he res­cued them from a mob. At the time he was their house boy, aged just 14, but he left abruptly af­ter Bhopal be­cause his fam­ily lived there.

Even­tu­ally, she meets the adult Naga, whose sis­ter is still dy­ing from Union Car­bide’s poi­sons all th­ese years on. Fran­coise also starts a re­la­tion­ship with Arkay, who came un­der Naga’s wing at a

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