The Red Book by Meaghan Delahunt

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The Red Book by Meaghan Delahunt

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A book about identity – not so much our struggle to find it, as our struggle to shed the one we've found ourselves wearing, for something more consciously chosen. The sharp strand of political comment is so overlain with beautiful writing and deep characterisation that it is possible to overlook it. I'd ask you not to. Delahunt has created a book worthy of reading and reflection.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Granta
ISBN: 978-1847080639

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The Book of the title is a photograph album: an album that Françoise is creating of her time in India and the lives of the people that she became entangled with.

Entangled is usually used in derogatory sense, but if we think about it, it perfectly describes how our lives become interwoven. There are those whose life will merely touch ours briefly, barely noticeably; others that will intersect, cutting across the width of our existence for a time and then moving on. Most though, at least most of the ones we notice, do become entangled. Not properly intertwined, and neatly meshed, but raggedly crossing & re-crossing, creating links and spaces, knots and loose ends. Thus it is for Françoise.

She is an Australian photographer. Some twenty years after her grandfather showed her the iconic photograph of a dead child, she finally makes her way to Bhopal in India, scene of a horrific gas explosion in 1984. Among the many people she meets, two stand out: Naga, once Sonam, the child of Tibetan refugees who mostly died in the aftermath of the Union Carbide tragedy, and Arkay, a.k.a. Tenzin, an addictive Scot seeking salvation in Buddhism.

The conceit of the book is to structure it as a photograph album without the photographs. Hence each episode is preceded with a description of what the picture shows. Not the caption (although that too is given in the way of a place and a date), but an actual description. Take the opening shot:

A Sikh man and his family. A western woman next to them with two camera bags at her feet. The shadow of the photographer, a young boy, extends along the ground.

New Delhi, India, December 2003.

The precise moment of the photograph is rarely, if ever, alluded to. It is merely there to unleash the memory, and prompt the telling of how it was. We might well conclude that that is indeed the purpose of photographs. As the introduction says: to touch an album is to put in back into motion. The idea works well because it enables the author to use the notion of a photograph album without stifling the readers' imagination by fixing the vignettes in actual pictures.

Images and the notions of images, their purpose and description, are fundamental themes of Delahunt's Indian story. The photographer is synaesthesic. She hears colours and sees sounds. This isn't imagery to her, but reality. Perhaps it is why she chooses to work in black and white, where the colours are just beyond the bounds of normal perception.

Perception, however, is not just about tangible objects; it also affects our view of the intangible – countries, peoples, events. These interpretations themselves are coloured by the images of them that come to us. There is circular notion of Fran being in India to take photographs, ultimately because of a photograph. The backdrop to The Red Book then is India. Take dashes of the real modern India, where a dying widow is permitted to choose a funeral combining both Hindu and Buddhist rites, where the rich still live in gated communities and the poor still live on the streets, even if now the two are not separated by colour, and mix it with the hippy-tinted view of India that survives even into the 21st century as a place of great hardship and great wisdom, that westerners are in equal measure moved to help and reluctant to allow to change. We want India to be what we need it to be, not what the locals need it to be. Even now. And even now, we will only help when it is out of the goodness or our hearts – not when it is a simple matter of meeting our legal and ethical responsibilities to make good specific damage. If these attitudes create fixed perceptions in the minds of Indians, then is it any wonder?

Against this is woven a love story, and a wider story of non-romantic love between friends and family. Fran and Arkay are damaged individuals one way and another, whilst Naga carries too heavy a load for a Buddhist acolyte. All three are believable characters; all engender sympathy and a measure of hope. All are on a spiritual journey of sorts, but the road is twisted and many are the chances for getting lost or changing direction.

In the end, it is a book about identity – not so much our struggle to find it, as our struggle to shed the one we've found ourselves wearing, for something more consciously chosen. The sharp strand of political comment is so overlain with beautiful writing and deep characterisation that it is possible to overlook it. I'd ask you not to. Delahunt has created a book worthy of reading and reflection.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more on the fall-out from Bhopal, try Animal's People by Indra Sinha.

Buy The Red Book by Meaghan Delahunt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Red Book by Meaghan Delahunt at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Red Book by Meaghan Delahunt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Red Book by Meaghan Delahunt at Amazon.com.


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