After a break from Man Booker International Prize shadowing duties last month, I have returned to reading translated fiction with ‘Based on a True Story’ by Delphine de Vigan translated from the French by George Miller. It is about a middle-aged Parisian author, Delphine, who is befriended by a woman known throughout only as “L.” who claims to be a professional ghostwriter. L.’s presence gradually takes over every aspect of Delphine’s life to the point where their close friendship turns into something far more sinister.
‘Based on a True Story’ focuses on what many would consider to be any author’s worst nightmares, namely writer’s block and plagiarism. It is very “meta” in the way in which truth and fiction become increasingly blurred. The most notable example is that the character Delphine has written a successful novel largely believed to be based on events in her own family which is something that the real de Vigan accomplished with her controversial book ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’ thought to be about her mother’s mental illness. However, for the most part, the extent to which ‘Based on a True Story’ is autobiographical is left deliberately ambiguous, particularly where the identity of L. (or “elle”, perhaps) is concerned.
The strength of the book lies in the sense of uneasiness rather than clever structural tricks and it is the gradual accumulation of odd incidents rather than big set pieces which forms the basis of Delphine and L.’s toxic friendship. The plot does move rather slowly and there is a lot of foreshadowing about L.’s behaviour, with many of the early chapters ending with a “but little did I know…” aside which occurred more often than was strictly necessary. However, even though the ending wasn’t entirely a surprise, I still found it very creepy and unsettling. It didn’t conclude with a “big reveal” characteristic of so many other modern psychological thrillers but I think that approach would have felt out of place with the tone of the rest of the book.
‘Based on a True Story’ was definitely a slow-burner and I have been thinking about it a lot since I finished it. The book is being adapted into a film directed by Roman Polanski and I think there is a lot of scope for a really interesting interpretation of its slippery “post-truth” themes on screen. Many thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.