Alexander Masters’ new book, A Life Discarded, is the most intriguing book I’ve read so far this year – 9/10
Disclosure: I received a copy of A Life Discarded for review. The opinions below are my own and unbiased.
Many of us keep a diary at some point in our lives. But do you ever think what would happen to them after you die? In 2001, nearly 150 diaries were discovered in a skip in Cambridge. They eventually found their way to Alexander Masters, a biographer who became engrossed in the mystery of what happened to ‘I’, the diarist.
My copy of A Life Discarded has been waiting for me to read it since I received my copy last month. But once I started it, I was totally hooked. I finished it in just two sittings, and it is without a doubt the most intriguing book that I’ve read this year. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, so I’m keeping this review deliberately vague!
When Masters first receives the diaries, he knows absolutely nothing about their author. He doesn’t even know the name of the person who wrote them. After all, who ever introduces themselves by name in their diary? He names the diarist ‘I’, and gradually starts to piece their story together. He uncovers slivers of personal information – sometimes in a straightforward way, sometimes as a complete surprise. Fragments of handwriting, photographs and sketches are dotted throughout the book, which really helps to remind the reader that ‘I’ isn’t a fictional character. They really lived the life that Masters is describing.
A Life Discarded is surprisingly hard to put down. I found that I was desperate to find out who ‘I’ was and why their diaries ended up in a skip. It’s a book about a rather unexceptional life, but somehow that makes it even more engrossing. This isn’t a biography about a famous actor, sportsman or explorer. It’s about you or me, and about how our life’s story could easily end up in a skip in Cambridge.
At the end of A Life Discarded, I felt that I truly knew ‘I’. Their life story was now just as important to me as any other biography that I have read. It’s a fascinating read, and one that will be a real contender for my top ten of 2017.
Unique, transgressive and as funny as its subject, A Life Discarded has all the suspense of a murder mystery. Written with his characteristic warmth, respect and humour, Masters asks you to join him in celebrating an unknown and important life left on the scrap heap.
A Life Discarded is a biographical detective story. In 2001, 148 tattered and mould-covered notebooks were discovered lying among broken bricks in a skip on a building site in Cambridge. Tens of thousands of pages were filled to the edges with urgent handwriting. They were a small part of an intimate, anonymous diary, starting in 1952 and ending half a century later, a few weeks before the books were thrown out. Over five years, the award-winning biographer Alexander Masters uncovers the identity and real history of their author, with an astounding final revelation.
A Life Discarded is a true, shocking, poignant, often hilarious story of an ordinary life. The author of the diaries, known only as ‘I’, is the tragicomic patron saint of everyone who feels their life should have been more successful. Part thrilling detective story, part love story, part social history, A Life Discarded is also an account of two writers’ obsessions: of ‘I’s need to record every second of life and of Masters’ pursuit of this mysterious yet universal diarist.
A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters is available in hardback, paperback and Kindle format, published by Fourth Estate.