Emily Rhodes

The traffic in human misery

Lucy Beresford’s heroine investigates her husband’s death while uncovering the truth about India’s missing millions in her compelling novel Invisible Threads

The traffic in human misery
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Invisible Threads

Lucy Beresford

Quartet, pp. 240, £

When Sara discovers that her husband died in India, rather than being killed in Afghanistan as she was told, she travels to Delhi to uncover the circumstances of his death. On the surface, Invisible Threads is a novel about an English woman on a personal journey to India, and comes with many of the trappings we’d expect. Lucy Beresford describes the country’s assault on her protagonist’s senses and observes the seeming contradictions of poverty, such as when Sara sees a barefooted beggar — her ‘hair is matted, her turquoise sari filthy, but she is carrying a mobile phone’. Sara also finds India to be palpably erotic, imagining how a sari ‘could be peeled off by a lover in a matter of seconds’, and it comes as no surprise when she lusts after her Indian driver, who is also a skilled sitar player.

This is, however, the misleadingly light surface of a dark and powerful book. Sara, like her author, is a psychotherapist — a profession dedicated to understanding the deeper issues behind our superficial behaviour. The deeper issue of Invisible Threads is the terrible position of girls and women in India, and Beresford skilfully weaves visceral examples of their plight into Sara’s experience while she is there investigating her husband’s death.

Sara’s first patient in Delhi is an 18-year-old whose family wanted to burn her to death when her 64-year-old husband, who she married when she was 11, died. When Sara meets a friend, a riot causes their rickshaw to be diverted through Delhi’s largest red light district, lined with prostitutes, including a little girl still sucking her thumb. She attends a conference where a question introduces her to the word ‘Devadasi’, which she discovers is the practice — continuing in spite of being officially outlawed — of marrying daughters to a temple to earn money for their family by performing sexual acts.

Through Sara’s research, Beresford informs us that in 2008 over a million women and children were trafficked into and around India, funding global terrorism and the drugs trade. We learn that in India, 500 people — half of whom are children — go missing every day, and of the terrible wilful blindness of the police, who give rape victims the ‘two-finger test’: if a woman’s muscles allow the fingers to be inserted she is considered to be ‘habituated to intercourse’, and this is taken as proof that she can’t have been raped.

The book’s great strength is the plurality of the title’s Invisible Threads. These allude to the marital bond that pulls Sara along in her quest to discover how her husband died, and also to her links with the abused women of India she tries to help on the way. Beresford’s novel is both enjoyable and eye-opening, alluring and appalling; it is a call to respect the ties that bind us all.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.50 Tel: 08430 600033