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.