"Promise you won't forget me, okay?"
Those can be magical words when a pretty girl says them to you. Those words have power and intrigue. Those words can stick in the mind and never let go. Those six words can work a dreamlike spell over a man. They can cause him to give up his daily life and risk failure and destruction by traveling to a new place and trying to revive that chimeric memory.
The unnamed protagonist of Richard Sala's remarkable Delphine is obsessed with the beautiful and mysterious girl who once told him to never forget her. After missed phone calls and ignored emails, the man decides to take action to find the girl who has been obsessing his life and his dreams.
The protagonist journeys to a dark and often terrifying place in an attempt to reconnect with the girl, but instead finds horrors — horrors that are both metaphysical and terrifyingly real — confronting him in that place. How far can our protagonist possibly go to pursue his love? How much of the journey is metaphorical and how much is real? And if it's metaphorical, are the horrors presented in this book even more frightening because of the psychological impact that they have?
At the center of this book is an unreliable narrator, a young man who's single-minded in his crush on a woman who frankly doesn't seem to care about him very much. Delphine has real problems on her mind — a very sick father and allusions to a complex life with many sexual partners — and no real energy to devote to a romance with a boy who seems oddly unformed in his life. There are several scenes in the book where Delphine is simply happily walking alone around her school campus when the narrator chases her down to talk to her. She seems pretty indifferent to his presence, which he interprets as sexy aloofness. He's almost a nonentity, simply a canvas onto which Delphine can cast her words and thoughts, and to him that fact is glorious.
Not only does this boy have no name in this story, but he also seems to have no real personality or focus. He's willing to change everything about what he likes to do to embrace aspects of life that Delphine just hints at — shifting from "I hate nature" to "I'm open minded! I can go, like, hiking or camping or whatever — if that's what you want to do" in a heartbeat because Delphine is basically just playing with him.
Because he's so unformed, our protagonist is unable to be really intimate with Delphine. There's an allusion to the couple having had sex on at least one occasion, but Delphine seems to be unable or unwilling to share her emotional heart with our protagonist. In one key scene, we see the pair in bed, fully clothed. "It's so hard for me to keep my hands off of you," he says. "Sometimes", she replies, "I fall into these moods where I don't like people touching me."
And this lack of intimacy — or this quest for intimacy — pushes the narrator to go on a journey of discovery, traveling to Delphine's unnamed home town in an attempt to reconnect with his beautiful crush object. While in the town, our protagonist finds a desiccated and often frightening world of horrible wig shops and shriveled old people; woods full of dread and beatings and wild beasts and terrifying creatures glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. By the time the journey reaches its terrifying end, with a horrific sort of revenge visited upon Delphine — "I had killed the whore and preserved the innocence" — both the narrator and we readers have been through a real journey — not just a trip to a mysterious small town, but also a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment.
And that enlightenment and growth gives this book its real power. The man's growth helps to make its conclusion so intriguing and memorable. As I interpret this book, it's about the journey that we all make towards becoming fully-fledged people, of casting out our small self-doubts and internal battles, the fears and obsessions that haunt us, in order to become more fully-fledged people. Sometimes we have to fight to have minds and emotions of our own rather than simply parroting the responses of other people. When our protagonist finally races through a mysterious house, attempting to take control of his life — "I'm not running, you fuckers!" — we see his face start to fill out and show more maturity. We start to see a confidence infuse his body and a kind of enlightenment enter the core of his being as he is forced to confront the implications of the actions that grow out of his passivity.
Late in the book we get a brief moment that might be a flash-forward, of an older, happy-looking protagonist tapping away at a computer as he googles Delphine's name. Though our man has lost an eye in his struggles to find maturity, that loss was a small sacrifice for the man to make to truly find himself. Left unsaid is the relationship between the narrator and his male friend, but the implication that the pair is a couple is a tantalizing and character-defining idea.
We're used to fairy tales telling the story of a journey by a girl from innocence to the real world. Delphine inverts the gender of those classic tales, but uses those familiar tropes to tell a familiar story. Richard Sala treads a world of metaphor and allusion, a world that feels as familiar as Grimm's Fairy Tales and as mysterious as our own heart.