Thursday, 9 March 2017

A Life Discarded - Alexander Masters

148 diaries found in a skip. The author is unknown and a stranger starts to read them, and then write this book about them.

It's years since I read a biography (and I don't think I've ever done it just for fun). Invariably, they're all about celebrities of some sort (generalisation, I know, but still....) but this one! The social researcher inside me was alerted and my brain chemistry was already smouldering.

A Life Discarded is a wonderful interweaving of the biographer's inner thoughts with those of the unknown diarist. Who were they and, perhaps more intriguingly, why were these diaries dumped (died alone was probably my foremost presumption)?

The diarist doesn't name themselves, and there doesn't seem to be a clear chronology. This makes for lots of narrative twists and turns, which A Life Discarded uses to good effect. The biography is deliberately written and structured to heighten this sense of intrigue and ever-deepening mystery. Alexander Masters alludes to this intention by offering up, early on, mistakes that he discovers in his assumptions about the diarist's life. Of course, these add an extra element of humour and poignancy to the narrative.

And, of course, there is the whole question of ethics: entering into the private space of a person's life - these are a lot of diaries; does them being in a skip mean you have been invited or not? And history; again 'of course', how do we make it and record it? How reliable is it, and at what and whose expense? Masters doesn't ignore these issues that are potentially big ethical problems, and includes conversations he's had with his history and philosophy academic friends. Throughout the novel, Masters talks his way through his ever-changing methodology. It feels a bit like the Famous Five Does a PhD, and I was charmed on both counts.

A Life Discarded brings the diarist's recordings (otherwise discarded both on paper and in their own mind) alive, and also plays a wonderful tribute to important people in Alexander Masters' life, most notably Dido Davies who gave him the diaries and was living with terminal cancer throughout the development of the autobiography.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's probably one of those where little things about it will stick with me and I'll bring them up in conversation at some point in the future.

Read further if you want to find out a bit about the diarist. It's a little bit spoilers but not too much. You decide.

Publication details: 2017 (paperback edition), 4th Estate, London
This copy: received for possible review from the publisher

Spoiler Alert! 

Spoiler ahead!

Alexander Masters talks about the diarist as a 'he'. And then he discovers that he is a 'she'. This brings another ethical dimension to the biography, which Masters does not shy away from: a man reading a woman's intimate thoughts and descriptions about her personal life. Oh boy! Frankly, this could have gone so wrong. But, it doesn't.

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