Unrelentingly ambitious: Nothing Holds Back the Night
Review: De Vigan asks for nothing – not even our sympathy
Delphine de Vigan
Reading this emphatic, exact – at times repellent – narrative is to feel voyeuristically privy to a daughter’s clinical account of her mother’s life. Yet it quickly becomes a wider exploration of human suffering caused by personal choice, not by war or starvation. It also exposes the morality, ethics and motivation of writing.
De Vigan asks for nothing; not even our sympathy, only our attention as she coolly pursues and explores the demands of a story apparently instigated by having discovered her mother’s body, five days after a lethal overdose.
Why present this memoir as a novel? Only she can answer that. Despite the tricks and time shifts, it becomes obvious that this is the history of a very real family; of the nine (one was adopted) children in it, three died by suicide. Before those deaths, there had been an accident – one child drowned in a well during a visit to the countryside. The family grieves.
Within months, however, her mother’s parents, the narrator’s recklessly selfish grandparents, set off for London, leaving the then seven children in the care of an 11-year-old. The craziness escalates.
Lucile, the narrator’s beautiful mother, born in 1946, the third child to Liane, determined to produce babies and ignore her predatory husband’s sexual marauding elsewhere, is a child model. Her beauty defines her throughout most of her life, even after her various breakdowns and humiliations; even after it fades. Probably Lucile’s earliest encounter with betrayal is when her body transforms into that of a teenager.
As an account of mental illness, this is unrelentingly ambitious. But it is as a study of one lost woman’s struggle to get through the days, the hours, the years, that De Vigan’s candid portrait of her doomed, bizarrely heroic mother proves devastating.