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The Black State by John Delacourt

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

In his latest novel, The Black State, John Delacourt achieves what many American and British authors have done before, i.e. successfully melding the hallowed halls of the elite into a thriller drawing out human eccentricities. The novel is balanced on the thin edge of reality and fantasy, and indulges in some rather sharp critiques of Canada’s Laurentian class and their rather uncouth underlings.

The story centres around Henry Raeburn and his father, Senator Gordon MacPhail. Henry had a privileged childhood in Vancouver's upscale Kerrisdale neighbourhood, enjoying the advantages of belonging to a family with a considerable political pedigree. Like so many young men, he falls prey to addiction, squanders his inheritance and ends up homeless on the streets of Vancouver. Then his extraordinary skill and passion as a photographer turns things around. He changes his name to Raeburn, the surname of his artistic maternal grandmother, and embarks on a lucrative international career. Henry’s trademark is the intersection of art and politics, photographing black sites— international locations not on any map where prisoners suffer unspeakable torture to extract intelligence for complicit Western governments.

The novel begins in a desolate region of Morocco. Henry, looking for another black site to photograph, trespasses on government property and is arrested, tried and convicted. During a prison transfer, insurgents kidnap Henry and demand an exorbitant ransom for his release. As the ensuing crisis unfolds, the reader is drawn into the shadowy world of international diplomacy and government, as Henry's father uses all his considerable political capital to secure his son's release.

Delacourt skilfully employs multiple perspectives throughout the novel, but it is Senator Gordon MacPhail whose point of view weaves the narrative together. A man of mediocre ability elevated to the Canadian Senate as a reward for his own father's services as a party bag man in B.C., Gordon MacPhail is tasked with protecting the Conservative Party from an investigation into its involvement in the black sites. He does this as faithfully as any political hack, until his own son is imprisoned and the party wants him to back down from getting him released, fearing it will shed light on their past complicity in rendition. Gordon refuses, and this rebellion against the 'tribe' plays a poignant role in the narrative.

While the novel introduces several significant female characters, their portrayals are often one-dimensional, serving as foils for the more complex male characters. However, Delacourt also uses these women, including MacPhail's ex-wife Marithe, a former senior civil servant, and his high school flame Hannah, now a prominent human rights lawyer, to paddle through the senator's past personal failures to his new sense of purpose and moral redemption. These complex relationships and dynamics expose the fragility of the male ego and add depth to the narrative.

Delacourt's penchant for unconventional names and mocking portrayals of characters such as Ambassador Ashwin Khaldikar is a welcome note of satire. The author's derision of the Laurentian elite and his skilful portrayal of Khaldikar’s number two, Torquil Forsey, also add to the entertainment value of The Black State.

The novel is not driven by an accelerated pace of action and adventure; rather, its strength lies in the meticulous development of characters and their relationships. The narrative flows smoothly, punctuated by suspenseful opening and closing scenes and dialogue that resonates with each character's unique traits. The prose is exceptionally good, and well edited. While The Black State is not a profound study of political morality or human frailty, it does touch on both. More engaging is the satire of self-serving politicians and corrupt officials, who will certainly strike a chord with Ottawa readers familiar with such people.

John Delacourt's best novel to date, The Black State is a highly engaging work of Canadian fiction, written by an author who is intimately familiar with Canada's corridors of power. It is a must-read.

The Black State is published by Now or Never Publishing.


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