Meaghan Delahunt interview

Meaghan Delahunt

Life swap

Having switched from Marxist activist to Zen Buddhist, Meaghan Delahunt tells Claire Sawers that her new book is all about escaping from the past

When Meaghan Delahunt needs a cliché-free way of describing spice markets in India or rain in Scotland, she turns to Zen Buddhism. ‘There’s this idea of looking at the world with beginner’s eyes. It gives you heightened awareness of everything, so you see things fresh.’ The Edinburgh-based, Melbourne-born author sometimes meditates on her way home from St Andrews, where she lectures in creative writing at the university. ‘Doesn’t everyone naturally fall into a meditative state going over the Forth Rail Bridge, looking at the fantastic view?’

Eastern spirituality has played a part in Delahunt’s life for over 20 years, when someone first taught her to meditate. While her award-winning début In the Blue House – about a love affair between Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo – tapped into a personal passion for Marxist doctrine, her second novel follows three strangers on an unplanned spiritual quest in India. But the self-confessed ‘young Communist revolutionary’, who dropped out of Melbourne Uni to sell socialist newspapers, hung up her red hat long ago.

The Red Book is Delahunt’s exploration of the human desire to shed past lives, or in her words, ‘become snake-new’. Vivid, wise, ambitious and beautiful, the book knits together the lives of Françoise, an Australian photographer visiting the Bhopal disaster; Naga, a Tibetan refugee whose family were killed in the disaster; and Arkay, an ex-hardman from West Lothian who swaps his alcoholic ways for Buddhism. ‘There’s always been this colonial fantasy, the notion of the East as a sort of spiritual repository, a place where people go to look at what’s going on in their lives in the West.’

Just as Françoise is determined to avoid taking hackneyed images of the colour soaked countryside, and shoots only in black and white, Delahunt is careful not to fall into the trap of writing a disenchanted gapper’s travelogue. Her characters are flawed and fascinating, but their emotional struggles remain believable. ‘When you meet someone, they reveal themselves over time. I like leaving lots of space; I trust that the general, intelligent reader wants to work a little with their imagination.’ Arkay, who might wrongly raise a few hackles as a stereotypically violent lager lover from Scotland, thankfully reveals himself to be a complex but troubled soul. Delahunt thinks readers will relate most easily to him. ‘We’re all addicted to something, whether we know it or not.’

Delahunt loves blurring the lines between colours, sounds and senses in her richly layered prose. Like Françoise, who has synaesthesia, she’ll often describe ‘a purple sigh’, or ‘a word that tastes like caramel’. As far as she’s concerned, her job is about creating a beautiful work of art, not a collection of dull biographies. She hates strict linear plotlines, and prefers to daydream, reminisce and eavesdrop on passages from her characters’ lives over the past four decades. Rather than confusing the structure, it adds layers and intrigue. ‘All those passages where Arkay is trying to meditate,’ Delahunt laughs, ‘and his mind is jumping around: let’s just say I know what I’m talking about.’

The Red Book is published by Granta on Thu 13 Mar; see book events for readings.

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