Battling madness

<strong>Delirium</strong>

Laura Restrepo<em> Harvill Secker, 336pp, £16.99</em>

Laura Restrepo's prizewinning novel Delirium is set in her native Colombia during the 1980s, a time blighted by corruption and civil unrest, when the cocaine baron Pablo Escobar was the most powerful man in the country. But her portrait of Bogotá as a "city where everyone's at war with everyone else" is sketchily drawn. We learn that the police cede control of the roads to guerrillas after three in the afternoon, a man guarding a private residence is mortally wounded and a bomb blows up a police station in Paloquemao, but these are isolated incidents that are never explored or contextualised. Instead, Restrepo uses them to create a background hum against which she tells the story of an upper-class family, the Londoños, which is itself rife with dark secrets.

The novel begins when Aguilar, a professor who has been reduced to selling dog food for a living after the university was "shut down because of unrest", returns home from a business trip to discover that his wife, Agustina, has gone mad. Four narratives explain this event. The first follows the husband, who hopes to "reach into the quagmire of madness to rescue Agustina from the depths", but manages only to sift aimlessly through memories of her before "the dark episode". Agustina herself recounts childhood stories about her beloved but abusive father and her effeminate younger brother, Bichi, whom she attempts to save from his violent temper. "I feel pangs in my stomach and I want to vomit when I see that each day my father is making Bichi more unhappy and withdrawn," she tells us - "but she simply can't bear the idea that her father will leave home because of all the things that make him lose his temper." She believes she has psychic powers and that, by employing them to predict her father's rages, she can keep the family on an even keel.

Switching confusedly between the first and the third person, the monologues show how close to madness she was even as a young girl. Her current bout of delirium seems inevitable - so any desire to understand it all but disappears. The story of Agustina's senile grandfather, Nicholas Portulinus, compounds the sense that her future is already mapped out for her. The efforts of his long-suffering wife, Blanca, to "tame the frenzy that otherwise could drag him down to the depths of hell" do not bode well for his granddaughter.

The final narrator is Agustina's old boyfriend Midas McAlister, employed by Escobar as a money launderer. His story introduces Spider - a paraplegic following a drunken horse-riding accident - and tells of how a crazy bet that he'd be able to put new life into Spider's "pecker", which "wasn't all the way dead yet", leads to the final tragedy that links the end of the novel to the beginning. But this final piece in the puzzle is not surprising enough to warrant the circuitousness of our journey.

The Nobel Prizewinner José Saramago describes the book as "one of the finest novels written in recent memory", yet while Restrepo borrows his idiosyncratic style of punctuation, and even mentions him and one of his novels in the story, she lacks his originality. The central premise - that if a family lives by lies, it will surely come unstuck in the end - feels like a tired one. "Delirium has no memory," Aguilar says at one point, but this is a story drowned in memories and the past. As a result, it never quite catches fire in the present.