Book Review: ‘Delirium’ by Laura Restrepo

Delirium

Laura Restrepo

Title: Delirium

Author: Laura Restrepo (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

Publisher: My copy was printed by Vintage, Random House

Publication Date: 11th March 2008 (first published in 2004, Bogota Colombia)

Paperback: 336 pages

Why did I choose to read this book? I visited the Beyond El Dorado: Power & Gold in Ancient Colombia,’ exhibition at the British Museum (open until 23rd March 2014) and found this book in the gift shop – and with my 10% off museum discount I decided to treat myself to an early Christmas present.

Where to read? Obviously it would be wonderful to read a book in it’s original setting, so if you are planning a trip to Colombia then I would take this story with you. However, if you’ve used up all your holiday allowance, like myself, then I would recommend picking somewhere peaceful as this is a book you need to concentrate on – I read it at home (inspirational I know, sorry.)

Refreshments: They eat empanadas, I love empanadas ( I learnt how to make them whilst in Ecuador – not bragging or anything) so read this and eat empanadas. Wash them down with, according to my sources tequila, but instead I chose a bottle of ice cold Aguila Cerveza

Review:

Aguilar returns home from a business trip to find a number of messages on his answer machine telling him to pick up his wife, Augustina, from a hotel room. Unsettled by this turn of events he rushes to her only to find she has gone mad. Desperate to rescue her from her own mind Aguilar has to unearth secrets from her dark past. Multiple narratives and histories are intertwined, from her grandparents madness, Midas a drug-trafficker, her Aunt Sofia and that of Agustina’s troubled childhood not forgetting the notorious Pablo Escobar. Weaving between the lines lies the secret to curing Augustina’s insanity but those are buried deep inside Colombia’s corrupt history.

The first thing that hit me was that stylistically, I had never read a book like this one. In fact this type of fractured narrative boasting no chapters, rather just page breaks, is something that I naturally avoid. However, the topic and aim of this story lent itself beautifully to this style, bringing you into the pages of both the characters and the history of Colombia. That’s not to say it is an easy book to read, far from it, you need to concentrate otherwise you lose who track of who is speaking. Whether it’s her husband, Aunt Sofi or Augustina’s former lover “Midas” McAlister, a narcodollar launderer whose front is an aerobics club. However, stick with it and you’ll enjoy a unique reading experience.

The character I enjoyed reading about the most and who spanned many of the time frames was that of Augustina’s, Aunt Sofi. Living on the sidelines yet simultaneously stuck right in the heart of the family she is the one who delivers the most illuminating of the secrets at the basis of Augustina’s madness.

The second is that of ‘Midas’, who presents us with the corrupt side of Colombia during the 1980s with Reagan in the White House and King of Coca, Pablo Escobar tightening his reign of power over the country. He explains how Augustina’s family grew rich thanks to himself and other money launderers, and gives us the unsavoury detail that her family ignores that he gets her pregnant and leaves her to deal with the consequences. His story culminates in the abandonment of Augustina thanks to a money laundering scam setup by Pablo Escabar himself that leaves Mida fleeing from gangsters. Other aspects of Colombia come out in the narrative such as, ‘like all her kind, has the unpleasant habit of… rejecting products made in this country… being prepared to pay anything for stuff from abroad.’ These tidbits from Colombian society enrich the narrative and overall message of Restrepo’s story

Finally, I knew little of the notorious Escabar but this story and especially this comment, ‘I was Escobar’s waiter: I served up my friends to him on a platter and added myself as desert’ piqued my interest further. I will definitely dig out further literature both from Colombian writer and commentators – or maybe go on this journey!

Overall this book was difficult to get into but I am extremely glad I stuck with it because it turned out to be a beautifully woven and intricate story of a country’s dark and throughly interesting past. A story that makes you want to read more about it’s subject is always a good thing in my book.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Ps. This is on my reading list, written by his brother it should prove rather an enlightening read.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern

The People in the Photo

Title: ‘The People in the Photo’

Author: Hélène Gestern (translated from French by Emily Boyce & Ros Schwartz)

Publisher: Gallic Books

Publication date: February 2014

Paperback: 265 pages

Why did I choose to read this book?: I was sent a copy by the lovely people at Gallic & Belgravia books. The style of the story intrigued me as I’m not usually one for a diary/letter format as I find them quite bitty but since Le Nouvel Observateur stated it was ‘Just Right’ I couldn’t help but give it a go.

Where to read? A cosy warm coffee shop where you would feel comfortable writing and reading a letter, this website is ideal to find one in your part of the world. I chose Prufrock Cafe serving the best coffee in London (in my opinion).

Refreshments There isn’t much in the way of eating or drinking in amongst the letter writing, however, being based in France & Geneva amonst other places sweet treats come to mind. Along with a strong cup of mud I embraced a couple of Crêpes, sugar and lemon nice and simple and above all delicious.

Review

Hélène Hivert’s childhood in shrouded in mystery and secrets. In a determined effort to discover the truth of her family she puts and advert in a newspaper detailing her quest and including a photo. The photo is an old back and white of her mother and two men at a tennis tournament taken at Interlaken in 1971, and comes to the attention of Stéphane, a Swiss biologist currently working in Ashford, Kent. He has a clue to Hélène’s past, one of the men is his father and the other is his father’s best-friend. By responding to Hélène’s request for information Stéphane instigates a flurry of written correspondence, via letter, email and text between the two of them. Cataloguing their independent discoveries as they delve into their parents history and sharing their quest to uncover the truths kept secret from them for their entire lives they reveal painful memories and develop a bond that will last a lifetime.

The style of this novel is in a word beautiful. It works as a dual narrative as we follow the correspondence between Hélène and Stéphane. It’s both the journey of discovery into their parents’ past and the truth of their childhood but also the progression of their friendship leading irreversibly to companionship. This style of narrative results in the reader getting caught up immediately in the lives of the character and creates a book that is unputdownable. In addition in amongst the pages of letters and emails we are given the odd exert describing another photo or document from the time period, this enables you to form an even more detailed picture of the characters.

The relationships created by Gestern are hugely enjoyable and admirable in their strength. The history of Stéphane’s father and Hélène’s mother in parallel with the developing one between them themselves is captivating and thanks to the first person penmanship the reader is caught between the pages immediately. My favourite line from the entire books sums this up beautifully, ‘love, once born, whatever the fate reserved for it, is irreversible.’ This poetic style is something I love about French literature and one that Gestern makes use of without becoming overly saccharine or stylized.

The denouement of the story gathers paces to the end of the novel with the emergence of letters and diaries getting translated revealing dark secrets. I had a real emotional response to some of the revelations ‘this time all the efforts of silver nitrate, gelatin, developers and paper are useless… that woman was already gone.’ This story doesn’t shy away from unpleasantness and real to the bone drama, pulling on the heartstrings of even the most cynical of reader.

This is in reality a love story but one that delves deeper than your regular cuddly toy happy ending novel – read it now!

Rating: 9 out of 10