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by Laura Restrepo
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Reviewed by Andy Barnes

If you read the word 'Colombia' in a news article, the chances are the words 'cocaine', 'cartel', and 'Escobar' won't be far behind. It's a perspective that Laura Restrepo, one of Colombia's most outspoken writers, shares. She has described her home country as a ‘disappearing nation', buckling under the weight of civil war and violent crime. Delirium is her latest attempt to write a novel encompassing what she sees as the madness of modern Colombia.

The book tells the story of Aguilar, a businessman who returns from a weekend away to find his wife Agustina in the throes of a severe nervous breakdown and unable to communicate with him. With the help of her Aunt Sofi, Aguilar attempts to piece together the threads of Agustina's life in order to determine the cause of her madness. The story is told in short chapters that alternate among these threads and include narratives about Agustina's overbearing father, her effeminate brother, her family's disintegration, her relationship with Aguilar, and the actions of her former lover, the playboy gangster Midas McAlister.

What emerges is a skillfully woven psychological portrait of Agustina, blending a variety of narrative styles and perspectives to great effect. For Restrepo, Agustina's breakdown mirrors that of her country, and the causes are the same. Colombia's delerium is laid out for all to see, from its stiflingly dysfunctional families to its violent criminals. The work's greatest strength, however, lies in its gradual development into an unusual sort of detective novel, wherein the tales of Agustina's past lives become suspects in the book's central crime: her breakdown. Restrepo skillfully employs this device to give direction to her backstories and, in the process, creates a book that is both an engrossing study of one woman's mind and a gripping read. Perhaps a little more lurid than it needs to be at some points, at heart this is an enthralling mystery. Although it is not an overly heavy political parable, it is abundantly clear where Restrepo's barbs are aimed.