A Colombian Family Drama

Can a novel centered on a mystery not be a mystery novel? In Laura Restrepo’s Delirium, Aguilar, a professor turned pet-food salesman, returns from a trip to discover that Agustina, his young, flighty wife, is gone from their home, which she was contentedly repainting when he left. A tip leads him to a hotel room, where he finds her, deranged. He brings her home; they cohabitate uneasily, she vacillating between ranting at him and ignoring him. Joined by her Aunt Sofi, he attempts to find out what happened to her.

However, Delirium isn’t particularly concerned with the mechanics of Aguilar’s detective work, which are quite simple. Instead, Ms. Restrepo uses this framework to tell the story of Agustina’s wealthy, troubled family. The book shifts focus constantly among four characters, and between the past and the present. In addition to Aguilar and Agustina, there’s Midas McAlister, an ex-lover of Agustina’s who launders money (via a health club) for the drug cartel of Pablo Escobar, and Nicholas Portulinus, Agustina’s grandfather, a musician whose obsession with a piano student hints at the madness which his granddaughter has inherited.

Family secrets are uncovered. Agustina’s wealthy clan is not immune to Colombia’s turbulence, and the country’s drug trade and guerrilla violence are the book’s constant undercurrents. But the crux of the narrative isn’t social or political. Instead, it’s a complex, psychosexual family drama, involving not only Agustina and Aunt Sofi but Agustina’s stern father, her willfully oblivious mother and her effeminate younger brother, with whom she shares a bond somewhere between protection and incest. While the specific event chain that triggers her madness and places her in the hotel room is in the recent past—and unfolds artfully near the end of the book—the sources of her mental state are her family’s dysfunction and the never-quite-specified illness passed down from Portulinus.

Delirium isn’t always easy to follow. Switching the point of view back and forth among characters is essential to Ms. Restrepo’s storytelling tactic, but the jumps will jar a reader expecting a taut psychological thriller. And, as with most novels that follow multiple characters, some parts move more swiftly, and feel more convincing, than others. Agustina’s passages are particularly dense; Ms. Restrepo sometimes shifts between first-and third-person to mimic her character’s disassociated inner life. (For instance: “She is surprised that he sounds so impassioned, so upset, nothing I’d done before had ever shaken him,” in which both “she” and “I” are Agustina.) Sometimes this works; other times it feels a little forced. It’s hard not to favor the passages narrated by McAlister, whose street-smartness and colorful retinue make his portions of the book vibrant and direct, in contrast with the more cerebral lives and worlds of the other central characters.

Agustina is never exactly cured of her condition. But Aguilar’s journey makes him understand, and love, his wife more. It’s a very satisfying ending: happy yet completely earned by the characters, and the reader.

Michael Sonnenschein is a writer living in Los Angeles.

A Colombian Family Drama