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