Nothing Holds Back the Night is a memoir about a woman called Lucile, narrated by her daughter Delphine, who we learn early on is going to kill herself.
This book has received great reviews and been declared “book of the year” in at least one newspaper, and everyone says the same: “hard to put down’’, “thrilling’’, “shocking’’, “powerful’’, “overwhelming”. Ok, let’s take a chill pill and not go crazy with hyperbole. That said, I’m afraid that if I admit to not being down with this book entirely, I might come off as pro-incest and mental illness and trigger a lynch mob – but: safety last.
In very short: Lucile grows up in a large family in Paris. She is an introverted child and also very beautiful, so she receives a lot of unwanted attention. As she grows older she becomes more and more depressed until, as a 33-year old, she has her first manic outburst which kickstarts a series of hospitalizations and decades of anti-psychotic drugs. The story is told in three parts: In the first section Lucile is a child and teenager, in the second part she has married as a 19-year old and given birth to what will become our narrator, and the third part of the book describes Lucile’s last few years. The second part of the book is the most successful. Here the focus has shifted so that Lucile stops being the subject and instead becomes the object of her daughter’s gaze, which shifts as the daughter goes from being a child to becoming a grown-up with children of her own.
The chapters are very short and quite often the narrator hijacks the reader to tell us about the process of writing the book; this book has taken a great toll on her on a personal level, the book we are reading was a great burden to her. She also tells us how she is writing the book, which of her mother’s siblings she has interviewed, whose letters she has read and how afraid she is that she will piss off her family by writing this, rather toothless, book. She even promises one of her aunts to end it on a brighter note, which she does.
[the author] may be reluctant to take chances because it would make the real-life family holidays a nightmare, but I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in good books.
I tried to read this book as a story by an unreliable narrator, but that was no fun because Delphine wants to be kind to the reader. She wants to be so kind that I felt insulted on several occasions when she told me “this was a metaphor’’ or “this is both metaphorically and literally so’’, while also telling us that “Lucile Poirier’’ is, in fact, a pseudonym. Everybody gets to keep up.
It was the chapters where Delphine tells the reader about the writing process that irritated me the most, because she makes some really odd choices. She wants to know about her mother and the origin of her mother’s suffering, but she refuses to interview her dad or any of Lucile’s lovers. “I don’t want to know what sort of wife or lover Lucile was’” she writes, and “he [her father] has rewritten his own story and in doing so rewritten Lucile’s as well”. But that could also be said to be true of all the people who knew Lucile that Delphine has talked to, and isn’t she rewriting Lucile’s story herself while calling truth “impossible’’? This struck me as odd, since it’s Lucile’s sexuality that makes Lucile want to move out of the house of her parents and the means by which she does so – I would have liked to know that story.
Then there are all the myths attached to the big family Lucile comes from, but rather than explore them, the narrator seems to salute them, making the book one long tribute to her family. She may be reluctant to take chances because it would make the real-life family holidays a nightmare, but I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in good books. About the myth she writes “I am the product of this myth and in a way it falls to me to maintain and perpetuate it, so that my family lives on and our rather desperate and absurd fantasy with it’’. This is so self-enamored that I can’t even…
What I found especially odd was that the patriarch of the family has a more prominent role and is described as an interesting person, while also being an incestuous pederast rapist, but the matriarch, for all her ‘’keeping the family together’’ and being a ‘’solid rock’’, is mostly just depicted as an elfish creature with cute clothes, a slim waist and always smiling..
Besides being a compilation of cliché phrases such as “Lucile was a mysterious child’’, (say no more), and my favourite “But deep down – and this is probably what Georges was thinking about in the evening, staring vacantly at the strips of parquet – wherever he was, in the arms of women, at the centre of long tables surrounded by friends, behind the wheel of a car on country roads, his children crammed in the back, wherever he was, yes, deep down, he was alone’’, it IS also at times a moving book about a mother and a daughter, but unfortunately, Vigan’s trepidation in approaching her family also kept me at arm’s length from their intimate relationship.
If you want to know more about Nothing Holds Back the Night, listen to the next episode of the Ark Audio Book Club – out Monday the 30th of January!