Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Fact or fiction? Truth or lies?

I’m not a thriller fan, although I have been known to read one or two. Metafiction on the other hand fascinates me which is what attracted me to Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this shockingly accomplished novel which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

Exhausted after a lengthy author tour publicising her latest book, Delphine finds herself uncharacteristically accepting an invitation to a party. She’s approached by a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. Delphine is preparing to say goodbye to her twins, off out into the world to start their lives. Her lover is often away but like most writers, solitude comes naturally to her and she is just at the point where she is ready to begin her next book. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. Pure fiction is not what readers want insists L, demanding that Delphine write the ’hidden book’ she mentioned when discussing her last novel, a piece of intimate autofiction. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about Delphine’s life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching Delphine’s every move?

Combining elements of a blockbuster thriller with a sophisticated literary debate, Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. De Vigan narrates her novel through Delphine’s voice as she looks back over the year L. insinuated herself into her life. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. This is the hook on which de Vigan hangs a debate about fiction and truth – how much veracity do we as readers expect from our novelists, what do we want in terms of authenticity and to what extent do novelists blur the line between fact and fiction whether consciously or unconsciously. Even now I can’t quite classify this book – thriller, literary novel, autofiction? It requires more than one pigeonhole. Given that it’s a piece of suspense I’ve no intention of revealing the resolution, although that’s to assume there is one which I’m not entirely sure there is. I do have my own theory, though, and I will say that the last two words are breathtakingly, diabolically clever.

28 thoughts on “Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Fact or fiction? Truth or lies?”

  1. Glad you liked this too ! I’m not a big thriller reader either but so enjoyed this book ….which has been made into a film dir Roman Polanski.

    Another layer to the ‘joke’ here is that De Vigan’s previous book was v much like the one described in this novel .

    She has another novel just out here which I’m also itching to read !

  2. Hooray! I have this in my TBR stack. I don’t read thrillers very often so when I do, I want them to be exactly that – thrilling.

    Very intrigued my the last two words in the book… as memorable as the last word in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes?!

  3. Despite my fondness for police procedurals I rarely read thrillers and even less rarely enjoy them. However, I do relish metafiction so this one had just gone onto the library reservation list.

  4. I’m not particularly a thriller fan either but this sounds…thrilling! What a fascinating concept, and well executed by the sounds of things. I can sense your engagement with the book from the review, you sound excited (perhaps unexpectedly so) by a book that seems to have exceeded your expectations. Is this the only book by de Vigan you’ve read?

    1. I’ve read No and Me which is very different. I did have high hopes for this one but you’re right, my expectations were exceeded. Always a treat when that happens, isn’t it

      1. It certainly is. Sometimes I need to wait for the buzz around a book to dissipate before I can read it because my heightened expectations can so easily lead to disappointment. Always good when the opposite happens.

  5. I’m like you, I don’t read a lot of thrillers and when I do it needs to have something different about it. This sounds a lot like another book I read – Exquisite by Sarah Stovell – but in fact you make this sound possibly better. Have added to my wishlist.

  6. This sounds SO good which is great news as I bought it at the weekend when I spent my Christmas book tokens. I’d had it on my list since it came out in hardback last year and received rave reviews.

  7. Even though I am spoilerphobic, I’m going to have a hard time not peeking at the final two words. This sounds completely satisfying. Part of me wants to snap up the library copy immediately, but a wiser part of me (a) stares at the stack of library loans currently residing here [which seems irrelevant] but, then, (b) recalls that it is hard to find good thrillers and sometimes that is just what one craves, so saving the idea of this one would be nice too.

    1. Ah, but to understand just how devilishly clever those last two words are you’ll have to read the book in it’s entirety! This one will take you no time at all to read. Once started, it’s very hard to put down.

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