Finding one diary discarded in a skip would be a dream come true for me – let alone 148 of them.
However, as biographer Alexander Masters discovers, working out what to do with them next is no easy matter.
I quite often find myself on eBay wondering whether bidding on tatty journals written in scrawling, often-illegible handwriting by people unknown is a good use of my limited funds.
I’ve never “won” one (yet). It seems a lot of other people are willing to pay far more than I have available for the honour of owning a little slice of someone else’s life.
I’m not sure what it is I think I’m going to find within their pages.
Maybe it’s because I wrote a journal consistently from the age of 18 until I was about 26 and then sporadically afterwards.
Perhaps there is an affinity with people who put pen to paper (so rare these days) to record their thoughts.
Or maybe I’m just nosy?
I know, though, that if I had found “148 tattered and mould-covered notebooks” lying among “broken bricks in a skip on a building site in Cambridge” I would have felt like I’d hit the jackpot.
They were initially discovered by two of his friends. Unsure what to do with them, they handed the three boxes of books over to Masters, the award-winning author of Stuart: A Life Backwards and Simon: The Genius In My Basement, with the idea that he could write about them.
The anonymous diaries begin in 1952 and end half a century later, which, as we learn, is a few weeks before they were thrown out.
When I heard about this book, I was incredibly excited and thrilled to get my hands on it.
I’ll admit to daydreaming about where I would start if they had suddenly fallen into my lap – and I think that’s where I went wrong.
Here’s the synopsis.
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.
My first instinct would be to discover who they belong to but, for Masters, it almost felt as if finding the identity of ‘I’ would somehow ruin it for him.
The book follows his rather twisty-turny route towards that conclusion, including consulting a private detective and a graphologist – which, though interesting, felt like padding to me.
There are excerpts from the diaries (and Masters’ attempts to make sense of them and his own life) together with drawings and photographs.
By all accounts, ‘I’ lives what I would consider a normal life, never fully realising the potential they clearly see in themselves, which makes the diaries all the more fascinating.
Intertwined with the main story are other threads about his two friends, which, though poignant, again feel like they take the focus away from the diaries.
I’m not saying the book isn’t a good read, it is.
Chapters often end with the punch of a new discovery (I’m not going to give any away), which makes it impossible to put down.
From my point of view, I just found it a bit frustrating.
My rating: Three and a half stars.
With thanks for Fourth Estate (via NetGalley) for the ARC in return for an honest review.