Tuesday, 25 April 2017

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip by Alexander Masters

Book Review

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip by Alexander Masters

"It was an ordinary pocket notebook, ambushed by a person's desperation to record his or her life."

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip will be published in hardback on 5th May 2017. It is written by Alexander Masters and published by 4th Estate.

I was really excited to read A Life Discarded because the author, Alexander Masters, wrote Stuart: A Life Backwards, which I loved (the film is also amazing, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch being brilliant). However, I think, like a lot of other reviewers, this book just didn't live up to the level set by Stuart. A Life Discarded is a unique, intriguing book, and I definitely enjoyed reading it, but I think it unfortunately fails by being compared to its older, prettier, more accomplished sister (does that work as a metaphor?)


Unique, transgressive and as funny as its subject, A Life Discarded has all the suspense of a murder mystery. Written with his characteristic warmth, respect and humour, Masters asks you to join him in celebrating an unknown and important life left on the scrap heap.
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.

Masters is a biographer, but instead of celebrities or historical figures, he focuses on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary; writing about people who normally fall through the cracks. This is something I love about the book; the slow discovery of a personality that is just one of the people walking down the street, and looking behind the ordinariness of them.

The diarist, or 'I', is an interesting character yet also very sad. In this 'I' encapsulates a lot of people's hopes and dreams. The diaries range over many years, so we see the diarist's rather naive hopes and dreams and then the eventual pattern of their life. Masters doesn't reveal the diarist's life in order, so you can immediately see how the dreams match up to the future. In this way I think it really works that the book isn't in chronological order. Masters pulls out elements from the diarists life and examines them, as opposed to going through the life point by point.

I definitely empathised with the diarist's young dreams to be a writer and rather egotistical belief in their own writing skills. I'm pretty sure I had the same worry when I was younger that I would die before being able to provide the world with my works of genius (my ego had deflated a little since then).

"I cling to life very desperately - I feel I could do great things - very afraid of physical disaster, nothing could be worse - could not bear to die before I had given my gifts to the community - have already suffered so to bring my gifts towards fruition." 

Without giving much away, this extract sums up the diarist well; unintentionally funny, pretentious, desperate, relatable and also very sad.

While the non-chronology works in some ways, I found in others it was frustrating. Maybe it's just not for me but the jumping around did confuse me a bit. I also wanted to hear more from the actual diaries themselves. Masters describes his discoveries or feelings and backs up his points with quotes from the diaries, like a GCSE essay.

It's difficult to write much more without giving away too many details. Though, I will say that Masters does demonstrate his ability to capture characters humorously. As in Stuart: A Life Backwards, he brilliantly interweaves humour and sadness, but not in a rollercoaster kind of way, they both exist at the same time throughout the book.

Yet, while I did enjoy A Life Discarded, I didn't love it. I suspect it's because I keep comparing it to Stuart, which I'm trying not too but it's difficult. Especially as I found Stuart is more likeable than 'I'.

My Rating: 3/5

I received a copy of A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip via NetGalley in return for an honest review. My thanks to the author and publisher.

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  1. Exactly what I thought....where can I read the actual diaries????

    1. Thanks. I kind of wish they'd just publish the diaries.