Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip – Alex Masters

Non-Fiction 3*s

Alex Masters was given the set of diaries by his long-term writing collaborator, Dido, who had found them in a skip with another mutual friend Richard and slowly, there was certainly never any real urgency, to work out who wrote them and just as importantly, why were they thrown into a skip in Cambridge.

As the title suggests, this is an unusual read with a narrative that reaches back to 2001 and 148 notebooks of different sizes and colours crammed with writing of an unknown person, someone who had felt the urge to document their life. Although Alex Masters has given us selective excerpts from the diaries the book is about how he played detective to find out who the writer was. He does a good job of leading us down some blind alley’s mirroring a true detective story where various statements are offered up as evidence and then dashed when a more certain truth makes itself apparent but… I have to admit that since the author failed to take what his friends advice, that is the most obvious way of finding the clues to the author, this all felt somewhat forced.

In order to find out who ‘I’ was Alex Masters visits libraries, he visits graphologists and he looks up births in a desultory way because when it comes down to it, the author is never really convinced that he wants to know who crammed their days full of writing about themselves. This wanting to know, whilst simultaneously willing the answers to present themselves via serendipitous events gives an odd, almost diffident feel to the book but I suppose while that feeling prevails the reader is perhaps forgiven for being downright nosey and voyeuristic is somewhat veiled. Yes, we all know reading someone else’s diary is wrong and unfortunately, without context or connection to ‘I’ or those in ‘I’s’ life, it isn’t terribly interesting either.

If you were expecting to have a good rummage around in some stranger’s thoughts, this isn’t that kind of book. This isn’t a narrative that starts with a youngster, with linear coverage to old-age, instead it is far more a look at hopes and dreams, it looks at a life spent wishing for something else entirely and then realising the moment has passed. In that respect this is makes for a somewhat sad read, however sympathetically Alex Masters has tackled the subject, the wit he employs never quite lifts the experience sufficiently for it to be anything except poignant.
While pursuing his project on the diary’s author, our author also inserts excerpts from his own life, a friend’s illness, was particularly well-written with a level of intimacy that bought this peripheral character to life in his well-chosen words.

Reading A Life Discarded made me realise how important the subject’s character is and whist you would imagine reading a diary would give you a surfeit of character, in this case, and many other’s I suspect this isn’t the case. We can draw some conclusions, as Alex Master’s did, and would imagine we would see the an emerging wisdom as the writer reaches into old age; we don’t, this ‘I’ appears to reject the growing older and wiser maxim, and that’s the problem when the subject emerges from the pages of the notebooks, I simply wasn’t sure that they shouldn’t have been left within them.

I’d like to thank the publishers 4th Estate for allowing me to read a copy of this quirky book, ahead of publication today, 5 May 2016. This unbiased review is my thanks to them.


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

17 thoughts on “A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip – Alex Masters

  1. I read about this in the weekend papers and was intrigued as I adored Stuart: A Life Backwards. It sounds like this doesn’t work to the same extent, which is a shame. Its interesting that such an intimate medium as a diary didn’t make ‘I’ compelling.


  2. I wonder at what point Masters decided to write about the diaries. The find sounds like a gift to a writer but it depends on the ‘I’ who wrote them as you point out in your final paragraph. Perhaps he’d invested too much time in the project to turn back – I sometimes think that about the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are programme. I gather that the woman who wrote the diaries was tracked down and that she approved what Masters had written. I wonder if she’ll get a share of the advance/royalties!


    1. I know what you mean – I used to watch Who Do You Think You Are all the time but stopped when they had a run of quite boring or repetitive backgrounds. It doesn’t say in the book whether she received anything at all.


  3. Sounds like such a fascinating premise for a story, Cleo – it really does. Sorry to hear that didn’t quite come out that way. Diaries, notebooks, journals and so on can be such interesting ways to get to know people, so I can see how this could have been something really original. Hmmm……I think I’ll wait on this, if I’m being honest.


  4. Such an interesting concept. Always wished I was a more dedicated diary writer – I did off and on in my teens but, looking back, although I thought they were full of juicy details, they were really so cryptic that if anyone found them they would have been quite ordinary!


  5. I must admit the idea of reading someone else’s discarded diaries makes me feel a bit squirmy. Actually I even feel that about diaries of famous people published after their death, unless they specifically said they wanted them published. Pity the book didn’t turn out too well, though – I can imagine a random person’s diary would be quite dull. That’s why I don’t keep one… “Got up. Ate. Read. Ate. Read. Went to bed.” 😉


    1. Haha – I love your entries, the writer of these diaries wrote for an hour and half every day – that’s a lot of eating and reading!!
      The diary entries themselves were kept fairly short but sqirmy is the word… it was the way the author went about the research that annoyed me…

      Liked by 1 person

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