The Black State by John Delacourt

An edgy, scintillating political thriller, The Black State by John Delacourt is a multi-layered novel written in lyrical prose that is shocking in its insight regarding the world of international diplomacy.  The tale begins when Henry Raeburn, a youngish and idealistic Canadian photographer, is sitting in a Moroccan café and about to embark on yet another photo essay in his series of “black sites.” These secretive detention centres are operated solely for the purpose of interrogation and information-gathering, and Henry has discovered that Western governments, including Canada, are complicit in the illegal use of them for torture and detainment.  As a privileged trust-fund kid, Henry is endeavouring to expose the heinous practice with the support of his London art dealer. And while Henry’s work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars, he is unaware that Russian money is laundered through his prestigious UK gallery.   

Henry completes his photo shoot but is then promptly arrested by Moroccan authorities for trespassing. (He cannot be accused of espionage, as the site does not officially exist.)  Imprisoned and with his photography equipment confiscated, Henry sends word to his father with the expectation that a small fine will be paid and that he will be released. Henry’s father, Senator Gordon MacPhail, attempts to utilize his influence and connections in order to have the Canadian ambassador in Morocco take an interest in his son’s case. But when the ambassador visits Henry in prison to offer him a quick release in exchange for his co-operation and silence, the naive Henry refuses to oblige, setting in motion the complex and multi-layered plot that is so eloquently developed and described by the author.   

Desperate to secure his son’s release, Gordon MacPhail begins to work his extensive contact list of academics, lawyers, and activists, alienating members of his own political party in the process who have their own reasons for wishing the story to be kept quiet. John Delacourt’s expertise in government relations coupled with his gifts as a storyteller, infuse the narrative with a sense of both verisimilitude and urgency, as the reader is introduced to the world of realpolitik and the complex maneuvering of diplomats and other officials working for personal advantage beyond their government’s agendas. Shrewd insights into diplomatic negotiations are dropped into the text, such as the exchange between the Russian Osipov and Canadian ambassador Ashwin:  

 As Osipov ordered himself a triple of Mamont, neat, Ashwin was already bracing himself for what his British and German diplomat friends called the Russian specialty: the love sandwich.  In between the pleasantries at the start and the end of meeting was the threat, the clarifying realization that violence was no longer just an option as part of a plan, it was a serious consideration.  And no one was excluded – not even a helpful Canadian diplomat.  The love sandwich allowed you to leave the table on a positive note, before you spent a sleepless night trying to figure out ways in which you could bring a crisis situation back under control.  

Throughout, the intense twists and turns of the plot are wonderful passages in lovely prose which provide a welcome respite to the cruelty and darkness of the story:  

On a barren stretch of hardscrabble, two soccer nets marked a field just past a grazing land for a congress of goats.  The goats were kept off the road by a fence of stacked rock and rusted wire.  A few scrambled away from their grazing spot as Henry sped past.  The strangeness of their eyes, slowly blinking, acknowledging his intrusion.  They looked to be the last sign of life before the wheat-coloured patches of grass thickened into a lusher green with a grove of cork trees, a blue sky streaked with cirrus clouds.  The colours, much like the terms of existence, went primary.  

There is a Shakespearian quality to the way in which Delacourt illustrates the differences between appearance and reality — those countless scenes and interludes as the story moves forward that are almost never the way they initially seemed to be. Equally Shakespearian in intensity is his ability to balance out the density of the tale with loving relationships: 

They wrapped their arms around each other and for this moment, like some enchanted spell, the years were scrubbed clean in the warmth of their embrace, the primal, ageless force of this love that overtook them.  A family once again… if only in this moment. 

In The Black State, Delacourt has written a complex book replete with richly-developed characters who inhabit a narrative that will haunt readers with tense plausibility about the world of international diplomacy.  Highly recommended. 

John Delacourt is an Ottawa-based writer and government relations consultant whose fiction has appeared in numerous publications across North America. His criticism and political commentary have appeared in The Rover, The Ottawa Review of Books, Ottawa Citizen, iPolitics, The Hill Times and Policy Magazine. He studied at the Humber School for Writers after graduating with an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto, and The Black State is his fourth novel.

Publisher: Now or Never Publishing (April 15, 2024)
Paperback 8″ x 5″ | 262 pages
ISBN: 9781989689608

 -- Website

Lucy E.M. Black (she/her/hers) is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, Stella’s Carpet and The Brickworks.  Her new short story collection, Class Lessons: Stories of Vulnerable Youth will be released October 2024. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer.  She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.

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