Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline


15 thoughts on “Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

  1. This seems like a wonderful read. I like how the author examines her near past through letters, documents and conversations for a story. The book reminds me of The Secret Orchard of Richard Ackerley by Diana Petre in which the author revisits the time her mother was alive through such documents. I loved that book. So probably I would love this too. And the fact that you finished it in a day speaks volumes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a unique portrayal of what was an at times frightening childhood, yet she handles it with great compassion and respect while being honest, it is something of a tribute to motherhood and the bond between a mother and a daughter despite the clear failings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You know I’m a fan of Delphine de Vigan!
    Great review….and reading in French #YouCanDoIt
    I’m going to try a new author this week: Chantal Thomas ‘Les souvenirs de la marée basse’ (rentrée littéraire 2017).

    Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, it is wonderful.
        1st chapters describe a day out with his mother and father + friend of the family (uncle?)
        Later the book gets more interesting. If you read it in French….push through first pages
        because it does get better. We never hear about the uncle again! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review, Claire. I agree – once you start this book, it’s virtually impossible to put down – it’s so compelling. De Vigan brings an openness/honesty to the book that works so well within the context of trying to understand Lucille and her ‘story’. And it’s beautifully written too. All in all, a great choice for WIT Month. I’m glad to see that you got so much out of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jacqui, it was a compelling read, and an interesting approach in her discerning who to give voice to, I think she is able to portray the mental health challenges of someone for whom the boundaries between being able to cope and not coping are so precarious with great respect and a kind of fearful admiration. I’m certainly in awe of how Lucile managed to get things back together, retrain and help others when she struggled for so long herself.


  4. I’ve seen the term ‘autofiction’ bandied about a lot recently and I rather like it. It seems to fit this book particularly well. I’ve read and very much enjoyed de Vigan’s No and Me a little while ago. I’m also looking forward to Based on a True Story which sounds quite intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A great review. I’ve long wanted to read this book; I seem to pick it up in bookstores all the time and yet I can never bring myself to buy it. I’m not sure why. Thanks to you, I will know to do otherwise next time I see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reading in French, yes! If I can do it with my miserable French then you can too. My first one was George Sand’s Indiana and it was such a thrill to read it in the original! I am on my 4th book now ( and it is getting easier each time, though I am still slow and more dependent on the dictionary than I’d like to be. The trick is IMO to know those five literary tenses for the basic verbs so that you don’t go on fruitless dictionary quests for words like ‘fut’.
    Emma from Book Around the Corner is a good guide, when she reviews something that’s interesting I ask her if it would be easy enough for me to read and so far she has always been right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do too Brona, I love a well researched historical novel of a life, like Sandra Gulland’s trilogy of Josephine Bonaparte; autofiction feels like an author just being frank “let’s take a little liberty by acknowledging that all memory is part imagination, and bring these real characters alive by channeling their likely thoughts and conversations with the greatest respect.” It feels true because it’s about the closest one can get to a version of it.
      Thanks for the link and recommendation, the title sounds very much of this style.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Gratitude by Delphine de Vigan (France) tr. George Miller – Word by Word

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