Delphine de Vigan is a writer who hides behind the veil of fiction while using material from her own life. Here is the epigraph from her latest work of ‘autobiographical fiction’:
It was as if he was a character in a story or a play, a character whose history is not recounted like history, but created like fiction. (Stephen King, Misery).
In her earlier work Nothing Holds Back the Night, ‘Delphine’ is the character telling the story of her mother’s life. This is the story of a brilliant and beautiful woman, who succumbs to mental illness and, eventually, to suicide. In our review of that book we were impressed by the writer’s ability to drive the narrative towards the mother, rather than making it about her own suffering.
In Based on a True Story, the reverse is true. This ‘autobiographical novel’ again has ‘Delphine’ as the narrator in what is a meta-fictional account of her collapse after the success of ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’, and the subsequent vulnerability that left her open to the manipulations of her new best friend ‘L’.
Reviewers are already making allusions to ‘Single White Female,’ but de Vigan’s book is infinitely more subtle than SWF, a somewhat crude tale of two women, one of whom is a psychopathic stalker. The stalker does, however have a similar desire to that of L in this book, to become the other woman, even if it means obliterating her to achieve it.
We never know to what degree this story is based on fact. When questioned as to whether ‘L’ existed, de Vigan replied, ‘Yes, in one form or another.’
They meet at a party ‘Delphine’ attends on a whim. She is already suffering a kind of burnout from the excessive praise, the extraordinary reception of her book about her mother, and book signings have long lost their charm. That night, she says,
L entered gently, with boundless delicacy, and I experienced amazing moments of complicity with her.
L. broke into my life, with the sole aim of annexation, but that would be untrue.
Well, no, actually it would be true. As the tale progresses and Delphine becomes more and more dependent on L the reader becomes increasingly uneasy. One wants to call out, ‘Look out, behind you,’ as one did at the movies as a child. Why is L often hanging around Delphine’s apartment at dawn? If she’s a ghost writer where are her books? Why does she always phone immediately after Delphine has received a threatening email? Why does she say they went to school together when Delphine has no memory of her, nor can she find her on the school records?
It takes a while, but eventually L’s true intent in this friendship emerges. L wants to influence and change the whole way Delphine writes. She says,
I know what your hidden book is. I’ve known from the start. I realised the first time I met you. You have it within you. We have it within us. You and I. If you don’t write it, it’s going to catch up with you. (my emphasis)
Run, Delphine, run. It’s as plain as day, she’s a crazy and she’s out to get you. And this is only on page 54 (of around 254 pages.)
This book will be praised. It will be made into a film. Let me be a dissenting voice. For me L did not add up; even the complex explanations of how she operated which came at the end of the book were unconvincing. I found her an irritating character and for all that Delphine described her as stunningly attractive I could never quite see her. But don’t let me put you off. You’ll need to read it to form your own opinion.