Review: A Life Discarded

For about 6 years in my late teens/early adulthood, I faithfully kept a diary. In 2009, fed up of carting them around, I binned the collected volumes (c.20 A5 notebooks), convinced that they would be of no interest to anyone else. Unlike the diarist in A Life Discarded, this was a deliberate act on my part, so I’m fairly confident that they’re buried in landfill, and no biographers will turn up on my doorstep.

Which is, more or less, what happens in this book. A tresspassing Cambridge academic finds boxes of notebooks dumped in a skip, enlists the help of a fellow academic in rescuing them, and she, in turn, passes them on to her friend and collaborator, Alexander Masters, who reluctantly sets about writing a biography of this unknown, presumed dead, diarist. Who, as it turns out, is not dead, and more than happy to have the diaries used in this way.

The excerpts from the diaries reveal a normal, often uninteresting person, who details the same sorts of frustrations, aspirations and disappointments that any one of us might suffer. Masters notes that this is the appeal of his subject. His reluctance to penetrate the mystery of who ‘I’ is, lest they be famous in some way, leads him into making the sorts of presumptions we are socially conditioned to make: one of the first entries Masters reads talks of a Great Project, and the diarist is presumed male. A different entry, initially thought by Masters to recount a stabbing, reveals the diarist’s experience of her first period, and that she was a woman all along.  This is not the only unexpected revelation, and Masters’ unflinching honesty, in detailing the pomposity of his suppositions, and the way in which they are punctured by reality, adds a great deal of humour to the book.

One frustration I had with this book was with a chapter spent detailing the ways in which the diarist was virtually incapacitated by her reproductive system in her younger years. The diarist may well have been one of those women whose experience of menstruation is debilitating, but the dramatic tone of her entries in general, and virtual ignorance of the process before it started, may also have shaped her writing on this topic. Either way, it was difficult to restrain my eye-rolling as Masters generalised about all women on the basis of the diarist’s experience, and at one point wondered how we remain sane. The idea that these diaries might demystify an entire gender was an unhelpful and unnecessary line of enquiry in an otherwise fascinating book.

A Life Discarded is hard to pin down. It is partly a biography of a diarist who remains unknown for most of the book, partly a mystery story, narrated by a detective who’s reluctant to solve his case, yet at times it reads more like a confessional on the part of the author, who was dealing with the terminal illness of a close friend and collaborator while he wrote. At the same time, this very fluidity is what gives the book its appeal, and makes it one that I will be recommending widely.