|Delphine de Vigan. Photograph: Delphine Jouandeau|
Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan review – a novel take on the writer’s own life
The French author toys with the reader while blurring memoir and fiction and eventually arriving at a gripping thriller
Sun 30 Apr 2017
s this a novel? That is the question Delphine de Vigan wants you to ask on opening her new book; she is playing with the reader from the beginning. The title itself introduces a note of ambiguity about veracity that permeates the story; throughout, we are obliged to ask ourselves who exactly is speaking to us, and how much we should believe.
The narrator is a writer named Delphine; she lives in Paris with her two teenage children, is in a relationship with a well-known journalist called François, and has recently achieved success with an autobiographical novel about her family, resulting in strained relationships with relatives who did not welcome the exposure. Thus far, the details correlate with what is known of the author. But this is fiction – isn’t it?
The real De Vigan’s previous book, Nothing Holds Back the Night, overtly addressed the fraught boundary between memoir and fiction and the question of the author’s licence to invent; Based on a True Story takes the idea a stage further. In the novel, Delphine is crippled by writer’s block after the double-edged response to her last book (never explicitly named here); she begins to receive poison pen letters, apparently from a member of her family accusing her in vicious terms of lying and exploitation. As her crisis progresses towards severe depression, Delphine encounters the enigmatic L at a party. L is intimately familiar with Delphine’s work; an admirer who quickly insinuates herself into Delphine’s life.
There’s a touch of All About Eve to L’s determination, though the book makes more overt cinematic and literary references; epigraphs are taken from Stephen King’s Misery, hinting at the narrative’s direction, though casual mentions of The Usual Suspects offer an alternative interpretation. Sharp-eyed readers will spot scattered literary clues that begin to form a picture as Delphine slowly realises that L’s insistent desire to get her working again may not be as benevolent as it appears.
For a psychological thriller, the story is surprisingly slow-burning. The gradual accumulation of detail as Delphine recalls the development of her relationship with L in a bid to understand, with hindsight, her own failure to see what was happening to her, becomes all the more chilling for its lack of identifiable drama. For the first two-thirds it reads more like an extended argument on the nature of literature and its obligations (or otherwise) to truth, and this philosophical bent gives the book a more thoroughly French flavour than the minimal descriptions of its Parisian setting. L has emphatic ideas about what a writer – specifically Delphine – ought to do, and it becomes clear that she will go to considerable lengths to stop Delphine veering from her approved path. In one impassioned rant she tells Delphine, “Fiction is over for you novelists… Why do you think readers and critics wonder about the autobiographical element in literary works? Because today that’s its sole raison d’etre: to give an account of reality, to tell the truth… That’s what readers expect of novelists: that they’ll lay their guts out on the table.”
It takes until the final part of the book before the pace is ramped up to conventional thriller standards, as the threat to Delphine becomes concrete, though perhaps not in the way the reader might have expected. In the cool, measured prose of George Miller’s translation, De Vigan’s story offers an unashamedly intellectual yet gripping exploration both of intense female friendship, and of our relationship to our own narratives. The question of who has the power – or the right – to tell someone’s story is not one that is easily resolved.
• Based on a True Story by Delphine De Vigan is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99).