Cracks within

nandini nair | Updated on November 29, 2014 Published on November 28, 2014


Nothing Holds Back the Night<br>Delphine de Vigan<br>Bloomsbury<br>₹399

A daughter’s brave and harrowing investigation into her mother’s madness

Lucile had written on the mirror in the bathroom in blood-red lipstick: ‘I’m going to crack.’ Every morning, we would comb our hair looking in this mirror, this threat tattooed on our faces.

How does a 12-year-old girl and her younger sister respond to a mother’s threats on a mirror, her ravings, her listing? What fears ambush the child as she watches her mother descend into drugs and delusions? Is her biggest fear finding her mother dead? Or following her mother down a similar path of destruction and destructiveness?

These are just some of the questions raised in French author Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night, an autobiographical novel that is breathless with tragedy but never maudlin with suffering. I came to this book with no expectations. The paperback shows a glamorous woman (Lucile) on the cover. Her blonde hair falls over her ears. Her lips gently parted, having just exhaled smoke from the cigarette between her fingers. A distinct French air hovers over her, just as it sweeps through this book, where family members hang out in the buff, eat lavish meals and spend days by the beach. From first appearances, one might think this is just another fey love story with a Parisian beauty.

It is anything but that. The book opens with the author finding her mother’s blue, pale blue, days-old body. That discovery throws her into a “vast dung hill”, from which she excavates her mother’s past. Nothing Holds Back the Night is de Vigan’s attempt to create a “paper coffin” for the woman who was always too beautiful, too sensitive, too distant, and who committed suicide at the age of 61.

The first question that de Vigan — author of the well-acclaimed Underground Time and No and Me — must deal with is whether she should write this book. A book — which unearths desperately dark secrets of a family — where the grandfather lusts after young girls, where multiple family members commit suicide, where the author must face up to her own battles with anorexia. In how many ways can one family be unhappy, one might ask. Clearly, in all too many ways.

The most harrowing parts of the book provide a child’s view of her mother’s madness. “My mother was an adult. My mother had read a lot and knew lots of things. My mother was clever. How could I imagine that my mother was talking nonsense? I was thirteen years old.” The child’s awareness of her mother’s disorders, and her inability to accept it come out all too vividly.

With every layer of family history that is peeled back, de Vigan finds herself sinking deeper into unfortunate truths but also growing more rabid about facts. She listens to recordings, pores over her mother’s papers, digs for dates and hunts through police records. She longs for the liberties that fiction might offer, but believes that this story must adhere to events and occurrences, not whimsies and memories. This book becomes more than a mere narration of tragedies, because it delves into the very act of writing. Even as de Vigan plots her mother’s life, she admits that a book, a story, a fact, will always be only one person’s truth. Nothing more, nothing less. She writes: “I don’t want to know what sort of wife or lover Lucile was. That’s none of my business. I am writing about Lucile through the eyes of a child who grew up too fast, writing about the mystery she always was to me...” Her investigations into her mother’s point of rupture also lead her to the starting point of her own writing, where one feeds into another.

Through Nothing Holds Back the Night, de Vigan comes to admire her sister’s strength, meets her mother anew and ultimately finds reconciliation. In the act of writing, she finds a semblance of meaning, which was denied her in childhood.

Published on November 28, 2014
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