Review

Drama of betrayal with an air of the unreal

Delphine de Vigan's award-winning thriller Based On A True Story turns a critical eye on the act of writing.
Delphine de Vigan's award-winning thriller Based On A True Story turns a critical eye on the act of writing.

I picked up this book thinking it would shed light on female friendship and intimacy, but this story about two female friends turns out to be more of a psychological thriller with an inconclusive conclusion.

The novel can feel like a mash-up between Single White Female, the 1992 movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as a murderous doppelganger, and Stephen King's Misery (1987), about an author held hostage by a rabid reader, a role played in the movie adaptation by Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for Best Actress for it.

What makes French author Delphine de Vigan's latest book - an award-winning bestseller in France - a cut above the usual psychological thriller is how it turns a critical eye on the act of writing itself and plays fast and loose with what is real and what is not.

The heroine of the book is Delphine, an author who made her debut with a largely autobiographical book about her fight against anorexia and is best known for that novel - the autobiographical one about her mother.

  • FICTION

  • BASED ON A TRUE STORY

    Delphine de Vigan

    Bloomsbury Publishing/ Paperback/ 374 pages/ Books Kinokuniya/ $27.43

    3.5/5 stars

So far so true.

De Vigan did write about anorexia and had won much praise for Nothing Holds Back The Night, a heartbreaking book about her mother Lucile, who was plagued by depression and ended up killing herself.

In this book, the author Delphine tells, in first person, the story of how an alluring woman - referred to just as L - had invaded her life.

L is a ghost writer who has made an art out of getting under the skin of her celebrity clients and writing in their voices. She is obsessed with Delphine, calling her almost daily and often turning up at her house.

Delphine, a mother of twins, finds herself confiding increasingly in her new best friend, who seems to intuitively understand what she is going through as an author under pressure to write her next book.

As Delphine slowly melts under the stress of writer's block and a series of anonymous abusive letters, L takes over. She "covers" for Delphine by replying to e-mail in her name and even passes herself off as the latter at a school talk.

While it is not known why the mysterious L has stuck to Delphine, one thing that L wants is for the latter to forsake fiction and to work on what she calls the truth instead.

"Writing must be a search for the truth, or else it's nothing. If you don't seek to know yourself through writing, to explore what's inside you, your make-up, to re-open your wounds, to scratch and dig with your hands... it's meaningless," L tells Delphine, in one of many such discussions in the book.

Truth does not exist even in autobiographical work, Delphine argues.

"As soon as you elide, or prolong, or tighten up, or fill the gaps, you're writing fiction."

Ironically, the work, teasingly titled Based On A True Story, has an air of the unreal. You do not know who or what to believe as you dive deeper and deeper into this drama about manipulation and betrayal.

Yet, ultimately, for all the airy, oh-so-French discussions about truth and authenticity in writing, neither Delphine nor L feels like someone whom the reader ought to care for, unlike the cast of family characters in her previous work, a work "overflowing with life", as American author Ursula Le Guin nicely put it.

If you liked this, read: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Little, Brown Book Group, $16.87, Books Kinokuniya), a self-reflexive novel about a woman who is obsessed with a female artist and her family.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Drama of betrayal with an air of the unreal'. Print Edition | Subscribe