A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash
by Alexander Masters
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $26)
Alexander Masters has a gift for making obscure lives seem “as fascinating as those of Cleopatra or Churchill,” said Joshua Kendall in The Wall Street Journal. The latest biography from the author of 2005’s Stuart: A Life Backwards was built upon on a remarkable find: In 2011, Masters was handed 148 diaries that a friend had recovered from a dumpster in Cambridge, England. The journals, dated 1952 through 2001 and all written by one person, contained tens of million of words, making them the largest diary ever produced. Masters would eventually devote five years to figuring out the books’ chronology and tracking the diarist down, and his account, though touched by humor, “reads like a taut thriller.”
Masters chooses to follow hunches as he begins his search, and “nearly every guess is wrong,” said Jim Higgins in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He assumes the diarist is male until he deduces that the frequent mention of blood referred to her menstruation. He then presumes that her decadeslong unrequited love interest is a man, until the evidence tells him otherwise. It’s a long slog to the moment when he reveals that the woman, to his surprise, is still alive, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer (U.K.). Too often, Masters “won’t, or can’t, connect the dots,” preferring to circle around the mystery instead of solving it. And the diarist’s “eccentric, comical, touching” writing helps only so much.
Still, “it isn’t hard to see why Masters was so seduced,” said Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in The Spectator (U.K.). His everywoman diarist, now 73 and still living in Cambridge, once harbored literary ambitions, and “in tone the diaries range from the forced chirpiness of a real-life Bridget Jones to splendid Beckettian gloom.” That Masters is now profiting from her writing “raises tricky ethical questions.” But the book never feels exploitative, because it gives the idea of a ghostwritten autobiography an “ingenious” twist. Here, “the ghost turns out to be the kind of person who usually slips through the cracks.”