What We Thought: I have read several excellent books since I've been reviewing for Netgalley and to be honest when I chose this one I thought it was a novel. It isn't. It's quite unlike anything else and must occupy a category of its own.
Some years ago several boxes of diaries were found in a skip in Cambridge by friends of the writer Alexander Masters. After a another few years he ended up as custodian of the unknown diarist's work. He ignored them for a while but on eventually dipping into them, became intrigued. Who is this unnamed person? Why were the diaries thrown out? Who is the oft-mentioned E?
In a manner befitting a detective novel Masters begins his investigation. Picking up the odd clue in the writing, he discovers where the writer lived, details of work done and schools attended and passions felt. He does not at first read the diaries in date order but gathers information sometimes from the early years - the fifties - and sometimes from the later ones.
Assuming the writer must be dead - or why would the books have been in a skip? - he pursues his mysterious quarry from Cambridge to London to the Wirral and back again.
The diarist is an artist - a painter, a pianist, a writer; great symphonies will be composed, novels will be published, the world will one day know this person. There is passion for life - and an inability to do anything other than write about it. The diaries move from teenage fantasies full of sketches, to adult depression; from a head-in-the-clouds inability to concentrate on mundane work, to an obsession with television personalities.
The writer is spiteful, hateful, loving, vulnerable, weak, full of grandiose ideas and ultimately ineffectual. There is hunger for acceptance and the refusal to act in an acceptable manner. An odd attraction to elderly women reveals itself.
This is an amazing book. It has the grip of a detective novel combined with the fascination of a biography. Covering over fifty years, it allows us to see into the mind of another person - to see all the grand schemes and petty annoyances, to gain insight to the private thoughts and private language of another human being in way I have never before encountered. Most published diarists write from the start with an eye on publication. This one did not.
Masters has a warm and human style. He both likes and dislikes the subject of his 'biography' and tells the tale with humour and self-deprecation. All life is here - ordinary life - a life discarded in a skip.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Lady in the Van
Avoid if you dislike: Warts and all investigations of another person’s private life.
Ideal accompaniments: A very open mind.
Genre: Biography / Diary