My mother was blue, a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes.
I find myself drawn to memoirs that dive deep into difficult, complicated mother-daughter relationships. It’s a dynamic fraught with push me/pull me tensions. Tensions that seem to only evolve with time. Is it possible to work them out? Come to terms with them and move on? Can you heal a broken childhood? Can you find forgiveness and healing?
That’s what Delphine de Vigan hopes to find with her memoir about her mother, Nothing Holds Back the Night. Her mother, named Lucile in this book, suffered from bi-polar and had several extended stays in mental health facilities throughout de Vigan’s childhood years. She attempted suicide more than once.
I probably set out to pay homage to Lucile, to give her a coffin made of paper…and a destiny as a character. But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering, as though there were a precise moment when her core self was breached in a definitive, irreparable way.
One of the traumatic events in Lucile’s own childhood was the sudden death of her younger brother, Antonin. He was only six when he fell into a well and drowned. De Vigan used this story to show us how family memories not only evolve, and take on a life of their own, but vary widely from one person to the next. To write her book, Delphine interviewed all her remaining aunts and uncles, various cousins and other extended family members and friends. She quickly became aware that this foundational story, or ‘inaugural drama‘, was remembered as four very distinct versions by various family members.
This is where the memoirist or biographer comes face to face with the murky truth about truth. Facts are only part of the story. If an omnipresent narrator could view this family accident, one definitive story could, perhaps, be told, but that’s not how it works in real life. Different versions become ‘fact’ to different people and these facts then influence future relations, future memories, future stories. These half-remembered ‘truths’, in the end, can tell us more about the individuals than about the actual event.
Lucile’s pain was part of our childhood and later part of our adult life, Lucile’s pain probably formed my sister and me. Yet every attempt to explain it is doomed to failure….Writing can do nothing. At very best it allows you to ask questions and interrogate memory.
All these murky facts and hazy memories become mixed up and intertwined so deeply, that it becomes impossible for anyone to untangle then into a single ah-ha moment or defining episode.
Having said that, all the way through her story, I expected De Vigan to uncover a letter or diary that would, finally, provide the answers she was looking for. Why did this very large, seemingly very close, happy family, have so many dark secrets and mental health issues? In the end, we can have our suspicions or fears, but there were no illuminating resolutions or revelations. It simply was what it was. Another family just trying to do their best to get through the stuff they had to get through.
For Delphine and Lucile, their story covers memory, love, truth telling, generational trauma and sadness, bi-polar disorder, incest, grief, loss, being isolated and lonely even in a large family, substance abuse and death.
Nothing Holds Back the Night is one writer’s search for her mother. An attempt to understand her life, her sadness and illness, her neglect and her love. It was about coming to terms with her mother’s death – what did it all mean, why did it happen the way it did, what can be learnt, what can be salvaged?
I was often reminded of I’m Supposed to Protect Your From All This, an extraordinary inter-generational memoir by Nadja Spiegelman. At that time I wrote, “Memoirs, good memoirs, have the power to heal, to connect, to normalise, to reach out, to understand and to promote empathy.”
Spiegelman and De Vigan have both managed to do just that. Nothing Holds Back the Night is an extraordinarily intimate and moving tribute to a troubled woman. I hope it brought Delphine some peace of mind.
A huge thank you to NancyElin for alerting me to this author and this book in particular. I will be reading more by De Vigan in the future.
- Book 11 of 20 Books of
- Paris in July (although I haven’t highlighted the French aspect of this memoir, I loved the snapshots of Paris after the war as Lucile was growing up, and then again, Paris in the 70’s and 80’s for Delphine’s childhood. The various fashions that influenced them, the music and books, the political unrest. Très chic!)
- Gratitude | Delphine de Vigan
Book: Nothing Holds Back the Night (Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit) Author: Delphine de Vigan Translator: George Miller ISBN: 9781408843451 Publisher: Bloomsbury Date: 1st September 2014 (originally published 17th August 2011) Format: paperback
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.