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A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters
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£12.99

Alexander Masters is the most unorthodox of biographers, said Victoria Segal in The Sunday Times. Rather than finding his subjects “neatly shelved in libraries”, he “trips over them in doorways” – like the homeless hero of Stuart: A Life Backwards – or “discovers them in his basement”. The subject of his latest book isn’t merely “unknown to the public”; even Masters himself, initially, doesn’t know who it is. The book begins in 2001, when a friend discovers, in a Cambridge skip, 148 notebooks. These prove to be the diaries of an eccentric – and clearly somewhat disturbed – woman. The friend passes the diaries to Masters, charging him with the task of returning them to their “rightful heir”. Instead, Masters becomes “seduced” by the idea of writing about their “nameless” author. Part detective story, part comedy, the resulting biography is “a wonderful, mercurial book”.

The author of the diaries is an “obsessive” who writes endlessly (in her youth) about menstruation, said Mary Beard in The Guardian – and, later, about the TV shows of Michael Barrymore. Hers is a tale of “life chances repeatedly thrown away”; one feels sympathy, but she is “hard to warm to”. Happily, though, the book is at least as much about Masters and the “thrill of the biographical chase”. In describing his efforts to track down the author, he “wonderfully exposes all the questions about identity” that the “enormous” diary raises. I found this book “vexing”, though admirable, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. Instead of whipping through the diaries systematically, seeking clues, Masters approaches them piecemeal, always “insisting on mystery” where there is little; he refuses, for instance, to look on the electoral register. The book’s failures are “honourable”, but it makes for an “agonisingly protracted” read.